Getting to the “why” of exercise: (and why I love Cane's theory about why we don't just do it)

In case you were wondering, Cane isn’t an evolutionary biologist, a neurologist, a psychologist, or any kind of -ist that makes him an authority on why we behave as we do.  So, his post on exercise is just a layman’s attempt to make some sense of widespread behavior, using common knowledge of evolution, sports, and human nature.

I think we have the human equivalent of catnip and scratching posts, but nothing that is the cat equivalent of dumb bells. Am I right?

While I’m always leering of signing onto some theory just because it’s “common sense,” I gotta say that I really like his. Think about it:  Are there any other animals on the planet who exercise solely for the purpose of staying physically fit?  (Please tell me if there are. That would be fascinating to me.)

I suppose I like it because it gives me a way to explain/understand my inability to maintain any kind of exercise routine that doesn’t point to some deficiency in my character:  a lack of willpower, commitment, values, priorities, etc.

It’s not like I think this gets me off the exercise hook.  I know I need to exercise.  I need to do that now more than ever.  But I like the idea that exercise the way we so often try to do it just isn’t natural for us.

A little history

“Exercise” was easy for me as a kid.  We called it “playing.”  I ran everywhere because I was in such a hurry to get there, and I rode my bike because it was the only mode of transportation I could have total control over.

After high school, though, my physical activity was sporadic at best.  When I was a young adult, I used to laugh at the idea that we should treat our bodies like temples.  I treated mine more like an amusement park.  Party on, dude!

Actually, what I really treated it like was my first car, a Toyota Corona.  I ran that baby to the ground, never thinking about how to take care of it.  I only thought of what I wanted it to do for me.  I just got in, turned the key, and expected it to go. I remember being dumbfounded (and more than a little pissed) when it simply stopped working one day, and my dad discovered that it was completely out of oil.  I didn’t know you had to put oil in a car, much less check its level.

I haven’t been much better with my body.  Except when I was trying to get pregnant, I’ve fed it only when it was hungry, with whatever was easiest or best-tasting.  I’ve pushed it to do whatever I wanted it to do, even if it hadn’t had enough sleep or food.  In fact, I’ve always felt a sort of disconnect from my body, which you can see even in my grammar:  In every sentence of this paragraph, I’ve used the word “it” rather than “me.”

And now, I just can’t do that any more.

Time to pay the piper

My body has felt kinda (or a lot) crummy for years, from a variety of ailments (endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, irritable bowel, migraine, insomnia). Just enough discomfort to be annoying but not enough to be debilitating. Despite the flippancy with which I wrote the previous paragraphs, I have, at various times, tried to do the right thing by my body.

What cutting off your nose to spite your face looks like: Me after a long stint of bad eating, too little sleep, and no exercise.

Nothing ever worked much at all–certainly not enough to justify the efforts I made–and I think I’ve felt sorta crappy for so many years that I long ago gave up on feeling good.  That, and I was more than a little angry that my body didn’t work right or feel quite right, but no doctors (except the one who made my children possible) ever seemed able to help me in any substantial way. I ping-ponged between caring for my body and giving it the finger. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

But now I have a new ailment to add to the list:   Fibromyalgia.

I’m not sure why, but somehow this has me paying attention in ways none of those other ailments has.  Maybe because this one is finally impacting in a bigger way my ability to do the things I want to do?  I don’t really know why, but I do know that if I don’t make some changes to address my diet, my sleep, and my physical activity, I’m going to have a miserable old age. Party’s over.

If at first you don’t succeed…

I have had stints of successful physical activity in my adult life.  For more than a year I regularly walked on a treadmill, but I’ve never been able to get back into a habit I could keep.  Cane’s theory helps me understand a possible reason why.

When I had that successful stint, I was a young mother who never got to watch grown-up movies.  While I walked on the treadmill, I watched movies that I couldn’t watch with my kids.  I watched them at 4:30 in the morning, but if I had a good one going I looked forward to getting out of bed.

I wasn’t exercising because it was good for me:  I was exercising so I could watch movies.

There was a real, immediate purpose behind it, one attached to my here-and-now wants more than my abstract needs.  The exercise gave me an excuse to use time for something frivolous and fun–something in short supply during those years.

Well, now I have a more concrete need to exericse, something I’ve known for at least a good year, but I haven’t been able to do anything that sticks.  Walking was fun when we were new to the neighborhood, but now that I know what’s around every corner, I’ve been less successful in getting out there.

I’ve been feeling discouraged and down on myself and a little hopeless about the whole thing.  I don’t have a lot of time to myself, and it’s sure hard to use it doing exercise I get no emotional benefit from.

Taken during a photography lesson at Portland's Japanese Garden, where exercise wasn't the point--but we did walk a lot.

…try looking through a new lens

I love Cane’s post (and theory) because it has me thinking about the problem in a whole different way.  That “Health” tab at the top of our blog was put there by me, not Cane.  Cane doesn’t really need to renovate anything in his life around health, but I do.  Honestly, when I talked him into putting it there, I wasn’t sure what I was going to be able to write about.  I just knew I needed to make some changes.

Since reading the first draft of his post, I’ve been thinking about what more authentic purposes for movement might be for me, and how I might incorporate physical movement into my day by serving some purpose other than my health.

Why do people move?

When I think of Cane and his jui jitsu practice, I know it’s not just competition or a desire to improve that gets him into the gym.  It’s the community. In fact, I think it’s community more than anything.

I see the same thing in my friend Lisa, who joined a dance community a few years ago.  She’s more physically active (and healthier) than I’ve ever seen her–not because she’s crazy for dance (though she does love it), but because she’s found people she loves to dance with.  It’s not the movement so much as the company that get her to dance every week.

I think another compelling reason is fun.  The treadmill was fun when it was about watching movies.  One of the few physical activities I do willingly is skate with Cane–because it’s fun.  See what I mean?

I don’t have any answers or clear direction yet for how to fix up this area of my life, but I’m hoping I’ve finally got a way to look at it that could get off my dime (and butt). I need to find something I love to do, and reasons I might love it include these:

  • It’s fun.
  • It brings me together with people I like.
  • It’s part of something creative.
  • It feels good.

Looking for some help here

Got any great ideas for me?  I’m thinking about yoga or some kind of dance.  Perhaps if I’m doing it with a group of other people, I’ll find some community and connection in it.  I need something relatively low-impact.  My body hurts pretty much daily, but I’m hoping that I can turn that around. Would love your suggestions.

How about you?

How do you keep fit?  Have you ever been able to stick to a fitness routine that doesn’t have some benefit other than health?  Do you think Cane’s onto something?

Image credits

Exercising cat:  Mr. T in DC

Toyota Corona:  Hugo90 

Treadmill:  Mr. T in DC

Yoga:  lululemon athletica