Is Learning to Love “Exercise” Hard Work?

Sam passed on this article, “The Exercise Myth,” by James Fell (Body for Wife). He says this:

Fewer than 25% of the population exercises enough to obtain even minimal health benefits,1 and that only 5% of the population exercises with enough regularity and intensity to actually have any kind of impact on weight loss.2

I repeat: only 5% of the population exercises enough to affect weight loss. This figure speaks volumes.

This is the structured exercise most people think of when it comes to losing weight: running, Zumba, Pilates, swimming, weightlifting, cross-country skiing, elliptical machines, martial arts, treadmills, personal trainers and gym memberships … Many will try, spending lots of money, and most will fail.

This doesn’t mean you’re lazy if you don’t succeed at exercise. It just means you’re not interested. It means you’re normal. It means you’re part of the 95%.

Problematic premise #1: “success” at exercise is here defined as weight loss. If you don’t lose weight through exercise, then you are part of the 95% who “fail.”

The other premise I object to is that it’s really, really hard to like moving your body. He starts his article talking about how he crawled across the finish line of a marathon and spent the next 90 minutes in the medical tent. How’s that supposed to encourage any newbie to get started?

Conclusion: exercise sucks.

But wait. Can you get active without running a marathon?  Is endurance training and competing the only legitimate definition of “exercise”?  Of course not. And James Fell is right about this part:

Imagine you’re a visitor from an alien race and, without knowing anything about humans, you use the scanning technology on your interstellar spacecraft to look inside a health club you see people lifting weights, doing Spin classes, sweating on elliptical trainers, and taking the stair-climber to nowhere. You’d fold your tentacles across your thorax, scratch your eye stalk and say, What the hell are those bipedal creatures up to? What is the point of all this?

For most people, they’ll never understand the point of exercise, and listening to someone talk about triathlon training is like trying to understand Klingon. We know it’s good for us, deep down, but that’s not enough to force us to do it on a regular basis. For many, exercise is time-consuming, expensive, awkward, painful, sweaty, boring, stupid … and all for changes just to the body. It doesn’t actually accomplish anything else. When I go for a run, it’s not to get anywhere except back home. When I lift weights, it’s not like I’m building a brick wall or helping a friend move.

For so many people, exercise lacks purpose.

I like James Fell. He’s a realistic guy. And overall his message is that you can get more active even if you don’t like “exercise” in its traditional, painful, intense, time-consuming, difficult form. So why start out with a story about marathon training (my goodness, if exercise=marathon and you read about my Mississauga Marathon experience, you’d park yourself on the nearest couch for the rest of your life). You can do NEAT:

It’s Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, which is burning calories via methods other than traditional sport or exercise. It’s movement with a purpose, like walking instead of driving, using your bike as a mode of transportation, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, getting up and walking to a co-worker’s office to chat instead of picking up the phone, pacing while on the phone instead of sitting, doing housework, shoveling snow, yard work, carpentry, playing with your kids, walking the dog, doing laundry, moving furniture … All those things people stopped doing because of technology.

When you adopt a mindset of looking for every possible excuse to add in extra movement, traditional exercise be damned, you can burn more calories each day without the pain and hassle, and without nearly the risk of developing a reward mentality in regards to “earning” a tasty treat. What’s more, movement begets more movement. Starting slowly, you’ll find over time that you transform from a sitter to a mover, and you’ll rack up some caloric burns while achieving greater fitness.

That’s the integrationist approach we’ve talked about on the blog before. It’s a reasonable message.

But in order to promote it, is it really necessary to go on and on about how awful exercise is? Yesterday Sam blogged about how she dislikes kale and quinoa, so dammit, she’s not going to eat it anymore.

And we promote the same idea about activity. If you hate a thing, why do it? But do you really, truly hate everything? Is there nothing you feel passionate about? Maybe, but the challenge of activity is part of its allure.

Activity has all sorts of bonuses that don’t include weight loss. In fact, when I dropped the obsession with losing weight, that’s when I really got in touch with the amazingness of my physical body and what it can do.

So though I’ve got no objections to every day movement–in fact if I like anything about the GCC challenge it’s that it’s making me walk a lot more than I used to and I’d forgotten how much I get out of walking as a mental break from everything–I want to make a pitch for defining our success at activities in terms that have nothing to do with weight loss.

Do you feel more energetic? Have you found new ways to spend time with friends? New friends? Are you sleeping better? Getting some satisfaction out of getting faster, stronger, more flexible? How about that headstand you couldn’t do last year but can rock now? Has your cholesterol dropped and does your doctor say “wow” when she takes your blood pressure?

So yes, exercise, like diet, is not a magic solution to losing weight. But it’s awesome! And there are lots of ways to engage in it. And you don’t have to make yourself love a thing you don’t love. But there are great reasons to keep looking until you find the right match.

If you’re already a convert, what would you say to someone in your life who expressed hesitance and doubt about getting active?  Bring on the unsolicited advice!

7 thoughts on “Is Learning to Love “Exercise” Hard Work?

  1. I heard it takes 3 weeks to make a habit so I set a goal to stick with it for three weeks. Then once you start to feel better, it makes you want to keep going. Having said that, I really enjoy exercise. But the guilt when I don’t exercise also motivates me unfortunately, which is a hangover from low self-esteem and poor body image.

  2. Like you, Tracy, and probably most who read this blog, I really like the sensations in my body from various activities– swimming, cycling, skiing, squash, kayaking. But for instance, I don’t like the sensations in my body when I hike– maybe it’s conditioning, maybe it’s psychological, who knows– but I do like the scenery and views. So I do it in a more limited way, knowing that I’m limited in my interests. But that’s fine.

    I’d have a conversation with a hesitant person about what sorts of sensations/experiences she likes and doesn’t like. And there’s an activity out there that will appeal to those likes/dislikes. Experimentation pays off, so I’d say try a bunch of different activities. Maybe ax-throwing will be your thing, who knows?

    One friend just told me yesterday that yoga slows her down because it puts her in touch with how fatigued and stressed she is in her regular life, and it makes her unhappy with and less tolerant of those life patterns. So she’s avoiding yoga while she’s particularly busy at work right now. I found that an interesting observation in a bunch of ways. Exercise affects us in a comprehensive way. A little introspection can reveal a lot about how we are, and I thank exercise for that.

  3. I would tell someone hesitant about exercising that I would be glad to trade my busted feet for their healthy ones because I am DYING to be able to do my favorite exercises again. Skating I can do but probably shouldn’t so I lot myself to once a week. I don’t take walks anymore at all. Just walking around at work might be more than I should do. All of the exercise I used to do I did for fun and I miss it so much. I miss the feeling of lungs and muscles burning too. And my mood and sleep were noticeably better when I was exercising regularly.

    I’ve finally found a gym in the area with a pool so I can maybe get the good exercise feelings back. I kept waiting for my feet to get better but I’ve waited long enough. Maybe there’s weight lifting I can do without using my feet too. I can’t wait to exercise again!

  4. i used to hate exercising. once at school i tried to break a toe with a hammer to avoid being forced to exercise. but then, some years later, the orthopedist said i had to strenghten my thighs so i could get rid of the knee pain. i cried. it was 15 years ago. since then, i started lifting weights and fell in love with it.

    i grew up thinking i was the ugliest girl in the world. when i was 9, i left a party because i thought i was the ugliest girl there. so you can see how i felt near other girls. my mother wouldn’t help either. i’m brazilian, she was born in rio de janeiro and her youth was all about beaches and sun. she was very beautiful and i was the redhead with very sensitive skin who liked to read a lot.

    so i went to the gym. i kept thinking “i’m not like all these women, i’m different, i’m here because i need to fix my knees”. ok. i knew i wasn’t there to look good because i would NEVER look good and my body wasn’t good enough for anything. i went to the gym just like i brushed my teeth. i knew i had to.

    but then something started to happen. i felt good. i felt proud when i saw tiny increments in strength. i saw i was really flexible and my body was ok. my mother died of cancer and i found some peace of mind at the gym. i got severely depressed and the gym helped.i do feel good when i lift weights. i discoverd i hate running and most sports. my thing is lifting heavy stuff (i love jiu-jitsu as well). it took me many years of my life to understand that there was nothing wrong with my body. the irony is that now i am stronger than most women and than many guys. how i wish i had discovered it was possible when i was 14, 15!

    i now see how much prejudice i had in my head! i’m not different from any other woman at the gym. we’re all there for a reason and all reasons are ok. they can also be avid readers. lifting weights and reading are not opposites! so i go there, do what i have to, feel good and that’s it. some people still stare at my arms, but now i’m proud of them. i eat and train for them to get big. so…

    i wanted to share this with my terrible english only to show that it is possible to love exercising even if you hate it. i just don’t know if the solution will be the same for everybody. setting goals don’t really help me. i must enjoy what i’m doing. see, i can’t imagine feeling miserable for 45 days to finally be happy when, let’s say, i lose some pounds. i must enjoy the activity! I HATE RUNNING. i believe there are several types of exercises and one/some will be the right for everybody. so don’t tell me to run because it can be great for lots of people. it isn’t FOR ME. so i guess people should try many activities until one feels perfect for them. i was lucky i had to do something that was spot on. it changed my life, it helped heal me, heal my brain. i think the last reason i go to the gym is to change anything in my body in the sense of how it looks. i don’t see body and mind as 2 separate things anymore. they are part of the same being. using the body can help heal the mind. exercising is not just for the outiside. it’s for the inside as well. so, if you hate something, stop and go look for other ways to exercise. it’s supposed to make you feel better, not worse!

    1. I love your story! Thank you so much for sharing it. It shows very clearly how a different way of looking at exercise can change lives!

  5. it can get under my skin a bit when I hear people ask me how I lost my weight and then go on to tell me that they have tried everything and I’m lucky because NOTHING has worked for them. While I don’t say this to their faces, I think – really?! NOTHING AT ALL has worked? Unless there is a serious underlying medical issue, if you consume a caloric deficit, move your body in some fashion and stick to less processed whole foods – YOU WILL LOSE WEIGHT. It is science. Keeping it off and finding motivation takes a change in your mind set. Both are achievable in a myriad of ways. If you haven’t found what works, keep trying.

  6. Great post, I find (like many people) that setting goals help, but of course I find the hole most people fall into is not setting small achievable goals but quite difficult to achieve goals. Anyway thanks for another great post

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