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!

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