What? Do I mean to tell you that I don’t recommend exercise for most people? Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. Think about it – what comes to mind when you say the word exercise? Do words like, work, sweat, pain, drudgery, boredom, effort, and so on come up for you? Unless you’re an accomplished athlete of many years the chances are they do.
For most of us the cycle goes something like this: We wake up one day inspired for one reason or another to “get in shape”, or perhaps to “get back in shape.” We come up with a plan. Maybe it’s to get up an hour early so we can go jogging every day before work. Or perhaps we buy that ultimate exercise machine and make a promise to ourselves that we will work out on it for a half hour a day. That all sounds great, doesn’t it?
What usually happens with these plans? They seem to go well for a short time. Then things somehow just seem to get in the way. Before long we start missing a day here, and a day there. That soon progresses to missing several days in a row. Before long we are no longer exercising at all, and our beautiful machine is acquiring an ever-thickening coating of dust. Or our fitness plan, gym membership, whatever, is collecting metaphorical dust.
Maybe you or someone you know has had this experience.
Why does this happen? What was wrong with our plan? As human beings we are attracted to doing things we enjoy, and we avoid doing things that we do not. Look again at the collection of words that come up when we think of exercise: work, sweat, pain, drudgery, boredom, effort, and so on. Do those sound like something most of us would enjoy? Probably not.
For most of us, if we are just doing something because we know it is good for us and we are not enjoying it, sooner or later we will find a way to stop. It generally does not matter how good our intentions are. Either our will to continue just seems to wear out, or our unconscious motivations end up undoing our conscious commitment to keep doing it.
And yet, we all know it is important to our health, both physical and emotional, to use our bodies and to experience physical exertion on a regular basis. So what is the answer?
Find some physical activity that is fun! It could be playing tennis, it could be doing yoga in a group, it could be dancing, martial arts, hiking, cycling, or… The important two factors are that it be fun for you on a long-term basis, and that it includes a fair amount of physical exertion. For example, I love bicycling. I find that it is usually very easy for me to get out and ride most days of the week. Occasionally my schedule interferes with a planned ride. But I find myself reacting by feeling like I have missed out on a ride rather than feeling that I have found a valid excuse not to go exercise.
The “exercise purists” will say that most of these fun activities are not really optimal for reaching and maintaining the best level fitness. They are absolutely right. However, isn’t it better to do something that may not be the optimal fitness activity, but that is sustainable over the long term than something that you will inevitably quit doing?
So find something you really enjoy and are likely to enjoy well into the future. Do it with joy, and accept the fact that it does not meet the criteria of most Olympic trainers. So what! As long as you find yourself looking forward to doing it, and it entails a reasonable amount of physical exertion, you are on the right track.
I bicycle on average about 6 days a week. I look forward to my ride. My neighbor goes to the gym and exercises. She told me that she does not enjoy it, but tries to do it because it is good for her. When she misses a day of going to the gym she feels guilty. When I miss a day I had planned to ride, I feel deprived of some of my share of joy for that day. A couple of years down the road which one of us do you think is more likely to be consistent in our chosen activities?
From time to time on a ride I may find myself smitten with a sudden spasm of irrational exuberance. I break into a sprint for 100 yards or so. Then I drop back down into a very comfortable pace. This is sometimes known as “interval training”, but I only do it if I feel like it and it is fun. On some rides I find myself just feeling like seeing how fast I can go for a short distance. Again, I do this just for fun. It often feels really great to push myself for a short distance.
Because language is important in determining how we think about things, I don’t even use the word exercise to describe what I do. I don’t want that feeling of obligation, or doing it just because it is good for me to be associated with my activity. I think of it as my fun physical activity – an important part of my playtime. And I make sure that it is. When I am out riding, I never push the pace to the point where it is not fun. Sometimes I do ride fast, but only when that is enjoyable – when the feeling of rushing along like a well-tuned machine is joyous. You might want to make up your own label for what you do – one that will reinforce the enjoyment aspect.
And you may even find that if you get really into your sport or activity that you will be motivated to do some special fitness or strength training to enable you to enjoy your activity more fully. But I would be careful not to make that the main focus. Be sure you do not let obligation creep into your fun activity. Rather, keep it as the means to the end so that you do not accidentally undermine your enjoyment and the long term consistency that is so much more attainable through doing what you truly enjoy.
Also, keep in mind that if you are currently some distance away from physically fit, start off gradually. Even if you pick an activity that seems like it will be fun, or maybe one you used to do and that was fun, if you go at it too hard from a dead stop, you may injure yourself. And even if you don’t injure yourself, if you go too hard at first you are likely to make yourself so sore that you will be resistant to continuing long enough to get fit.
One important side note: As we age, the importance of flexibility in terms of avoiding injury with many physical activities becomes more and more important. By now, if you’ve been reading my blogs and articles you know that I often am at odds with the commonly accepted assumptions about many things. Flexibility is no exception. I have learned that the mainstream approach to flexibility is not efficient, and that it often leads to or increases the chances of injury rather than protecting against injury. I have learned an entirely new approach that is far safer and produces much more rapid and profound results. I learned this from the brilliant work of a former Soviet Olympic trainer. I will have a post about this important breakthrough in the very near future.