My growing hate for exercise.
As an exercise physiologist, I have lots of empirical and anecdotal reasons why I should encourage your relatives to be more active, why I should encourage my students to be more physically active, and why I should exercise, at a moderate intensity, 30 minutes a day, 5 or more days per week.
I've spent an inordinate amount of money on an education, from bachelor's to doctorate, in which the bottom line and motivation for most classes hinged on the wonderful benefits of physical activity and proper nutrition. I even started a podcast which encouraged people to understand the value and importance of physical activity and exercise, and went as far as to highlight the difference between the two. I've sat in many meetings, sponging up the last century of research from renown chemists, physiologists, and epidemiologists' contributions to the field of exercise science, all essentially advocating the benefits of resistance training, endurance training, cross fit, and developing health-related fitness. I've absorbed talks on the reduction in risk and incidences of populations who are fit and fat, depressed and happy, overweight and underweight. I've led class discussions on the value of sleep, the importance of meditation, and the benefits of caloric restriction and how all of them impact physical activity. I've spent night after night in physiology labs collecting data which proves the accuracy of new tech devices which exist to 'make people more healthy and aware of their gluttony and sloth. I've had people sweep floors, run at high speeds on treadmills, mow a lawn, play basketball, and do many other things that strengthen the point that activity equals caloric expenditure, which equals better health, which ultimately means that you need one of those devices to have a chance of obtaining and monitoring your sloth and gluttony.
If you can think of it, and it has to do with exercise, chances are that I've seen it, heard about it, or talked about it. Somewhere.
That's not the point I'm making today.
The change in wellness culture over the last few decades.
In my young 30 or so years of living, western culture hasn't really changed much. More than anything, there's been a more 'horizontal' change in health and wellness as opposed to a vertical one. As a part of the scientific research community in the western world, I can surely say that one of the most significant changes has been the increase in obesity rates and other lifestyle-related disorders. I can also say that during this time, and perhaps more than any other time in our existence, the research on developing healthier lifestyles and benefits to optimal health have never been stronger. Commercials about improvements to our technology, TV shows with audiences drooling at the success stories of people who 'pickle the beast' of obesity, and devices that tell us to get our lazy behinds off the couch and exercise, have never been more prominent in our history. Regardless, the fact remains the same: The U.S. Is still leading the way in most preventable, lifestyle-related conditions and diseases.
My belief in the meaning and value of eustress.
I think many of us (me being the chief among them) forget that we came into existence as animals. This means that we are inherently inclined to serve ourselves and our hierarchical, animalistic needs first. In the 21st century, we've become a society which values the 'disciplined superstar athlete' the 'quantified self', the 'highly arrogant and praised' self, and the 'independent self', above things and people we should value more, including those who depend on us for our survival (hence the rise in number of single moms.)
The mismatch between the meaning of eustress to the overall life and the contribution that exercise should make to eustress is beyond belief. I think it is fair to suggest that, when most people exercise, or to suggest that the main reason people ultimately exercise, is self-driven. In other words, when people work out, their main objective is eudemonic, in the sense that they want the 'animalistic' pleasurable benefits from regular exercise and sometimes, just a simple, acute bout of exercise (endorphin release, better sleep, self-confidence, etc.).
There's nothing wrong with that.
But with most folks, the buck stop there.
And that' the problem with the idea and place of exercise, especially in the western world.
As fitness instructors, researchers, professors, clinicians, and the like, we've grown accustomed to preaching about the benefits of exercise, the role it plays in risk reduction and have given so little care and attention to what its proper function is in the animal kingdom - a kingdom in which we humans sit atop. If we look at how and why other primates expend energy, we see that their main function is the survival of themselves, and the survival of those animals who are in their care, which includes all identical animals of their kind, around their immediate environment. Why are we so different? We are different because we can make the choice to be selfish and slothful.
Now, stop and ask yourself this: The last time you went to Planet Fitness, Gold's Gym, did cross fit, or the last time you went to your pilates class: Did you have the well being of the lady staying next to you in mind? Were you planning on helping 75-year-old John with his yard? Did you intend to visit the homeless shelter and spread the message of Christ? Probably not.
And therein lies the problem.
Many of us exercise because it looks good to others while we do it, it makes us feel good, it strengthens our physical appearance, and/or we equate it with work performance, increased revenue, or reduced insurance costs. Now, if we do those in such a ways as to make man better (and that's an issue of the heart), then we've got something good. If not, you should simply stop, because you're really just burning through energy.
The true reasons we should be fit and the Americanized reasons that we are fit are eons away from each other. One of the major reasons Darwin's survival of the fittest theory works is because animals don't have the same level of consciousness seen in humans. In other words, an individual with serious wisdom, humility, and selflessness can live longer (with a greater quality of life) than a guy with an a VO2 max of 68 ( ml per kg per min) 12% body fat, and an amazing 6-pack.
It seems to me, that America has become a society with wonderful bodies and impoverished minds. Yes, we live longer, but our quality of life stinks. Hence, the obesity, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, anxiety, cancer, influenza, and arthritis problems that continue to increase. In most cases (not all cases, because genes are powerful things), these are issues of the heart before becoming issues of the body. Cogito ergo sum.
Why should exercise be any different?
Yes, I'm tired of the fact that exercise is advocated as medicine. I'm tired of us researchers delving into the nooks and crannies of why certain doses of exercises elicit certain responses. I'm tired of us researchers spending time finding the proper avenues for exercise and recommending it as a sort of lifestyle prescription for better quality of life. On the surface, yeah, maybe you sleep a little better. Yeah, your post-prandial glucose response is a little better. But what causes the issue in the first place (and no, it wasn't sedentary activity)?
Exercise professionals everywhere will tell you that the hardest task we have is permanently modifying an individual's habits to include exercise. Go read any peer-reviewed scientific journal, and you'll see the same thing over and over in the discussion section: "Most of our participants regained the weight 6 months following the intervention period."
Wait. But why? Because we don't understand what's in the person's heart. Moreover, we don't understand what's in our own heart. (this, my friends, is a whole other issue..)
Exercise is a fad. Fitness is a fad. Exercise is given to the elite. The rich. It's sold to the poor. We barter with it, within ourselves. As scientists, we barter with its effects on the human genome. Exercise is given to those who need to vent. To run their problems away. To punch their anxiety. To cycle their stress. To curl their tension. To hurdle their dreams. To Zumba their waistlines, To burpee their competition with the woman sitting behind them at work. To yoga their relationship. To bench press their confidence. Exercise (and in many cases, nutrition as well) is used as a sort of conduit to 'the good life'. A better lifestyle. A worry-free existence. A cure for obesity. A cure for diabetes. A cure for dull living. A cure for stress. A cure for anxiety. A cure for low back pain.
There are no short-term or long-term benefits to exercise. If we were designed to move, how can anything that results from what we were hard-wired to do, be considered a benefit? It's what we are (As a professing Christian, it could be inferred that we are still trying to 'get back to baseline')! If strength training begets hypertrophy, we were meant to gain muscle mass, in order that we might protect and withstand. If endurance training causes an increase in mitochondrial density, it's because we were meant to have a greater capacity to utilize oxygen, so that we might protect, flee, outlast, and withstand. It's not a benefit. It's who we are. It's what was meant to be.
We need folks who understand that exercise (and dieting; another story for another day...) aren't the end-all and be-all mechanisms for a higher quality of life. That message needs to be terminated. We need people who understand that, at the heart of the matter, the main problem is a lack of what's within, not a lack of what's without.
The truth is: exercise is not medicine. It's a tool. And when's the last time you came out of the shed with one minor tool, and completed a major job?