Can you really just do it? (exercise) Why tae bo and aerobics went the way of big hair and parachute pants

Skating on the Willamette riverfront with Rita on a beautiful spring day.

I’ll admit it. I’m allergic to exercise. I actually think everyone is.

My theory is that it’s evolutionary; we haven’t evolved to be good at exercise because we haven’t been doing it long enough.

If you think about it, exercise is a very new phenomenon. We’ve been on this planet in our modern form for about 200,000 years or so. The earliest recorded use of the word exercise dates to the 14th century. We know that Greek athletes exercised as part of the training for the Olympics way back in 700 BC or so. Probably warriors did something that looked like exercise way before that but the record is sketchy at best. In this country we didn’t really think about exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle until the middle of the 20th century or so.

Disclaimer: This is my theory only. I don’t have any scientific studies to back it up but it’s heavily influenced by the writing of Richard Dawkins, especially his Selfish Gene. If you think about it though, it makes sense.

My point is that in the long history of mankind exercise is just a tiny blip on the timeline. We haven’t been doing it long enough for natural selection to kick in and make it a selectable trait. It’s hard to believe now but the fitness gym just didn’t exist in this country as recently as 100 years ago. Jack Lalanne opened one of the nation’s first in 1936. The idea that healthy people exercise is a very new phenomenon.

Natural Selection

I imagine in a few thousand years those who tend to be able to sustain an exercise regimen will have lived longer and therefore produced more offspring. These offspring will have inherited the gene for exercise and passed it on to their offspring. Until then though, exercise just isn’t natural.

I believe that we are using exercise to make up for the physical activity we used to get as a matter of course from everyday life. Our bodies adapted to the rigors of food gathering and hunting and the migratory existence we lived for much of our history. Evolution and natural selection made our bodies able to thrive in those rigorous conditions. Now that we don’t have such a physically rigorous existence, we use exercise to replace that rigor. The only problem is that the purpose is missing. Exercise needs a purpose.

Most of the physical activity that we do on a daily basis has a direct immediate purpose. When I sweep the floor my purpose is to get the floor clean. When I move my feet I”m trying to get from one place to another. There is an inherent purpose to those kind of activities that makes doing them necessary and relevant. They look like the kinds of work that we have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years.  Exercise doesn’t have this. Exercise is work without an immediate purpose. This is unnatural.

Sense of Purpose

May not look like fun but Brazilian Jiujitsu is one of my favorite things to do

Of course the ultimate goal of exercise is health and fitness, but there is no inherent purpose. When you are lifting weights up and down, you don’t have a built-in purpose like you do when sweeping the floor. I think this creates a disconnect in the brain. Walking to nowhere on a treadmill takes a bit of mental justification in a way that walking out to the mailbox to get the mail does not. This is the problem with exercise and what makes it unsustainable for most. It really is pointless. At least in the immediate sense.

Our bodies are built to work for more immediate rewards than we get with exercise. Because of that, most exercise requires willpower. Willpower is another way of saying that you do something even though you aren’t getting a reward. Or that the reward is way off in the future or maybe even not guaranteed at all.

So, after you punch the air a few thousand times while watching Billy Blanks take you through a Tae Bo workout on TV it starts to get pretty old. Your willpower fades. The part of your brain that wants some immediate reward tells you that the activity is pointless. You aren’t fighting off a bear or protecting your cave against enemies. You are simply punching the air at nothing at all. There is no way to sustain it. The brain won’t let you.

Handstand contest with Grace on the beach. She may have won.

The Big Solution

So how do we resolve that dilemma? We already have. It’s called sports.

Sports have naturally evolved in every culture around the world. It’s our way of reconciling the body’s need to move for physical health and the brain’s need to have that movement be productive.  All of a sudden there is an immediate purpose to our activity. The brain is satisfied and the body gets exercise. The goal is not to lift the dumbell over and over. It’s to score a basket, win the game, be first over the finish line etc. These are all goals that the brain can live with. It’s what makes sports so enjoyable. We enjoy all the hard physical work because there is an identifiable immediate goal.

My point is this: If you are having trouble sustaining an exercise routine or schedule it’s not exactly your fault. It’s because you weren’t made to. You are a thinking, rational being that seeks purpose in the actions that you take. You need the brain and the body to engage simultaneously in those actions. You need an immediate reward. Now, I’m not talking about the kind of reward where you buy yourself a milkshake because you got through the workout. No, the reward has to be inherent in the activity itself. Just like sweeping the floor or scoring a basket.

Arsenal v Liverpool

Great exercise and fun too. We are so attracted to sports because our bodies need to move.

I’m lucky that I’ve been exercising regularly for about 25 years or so. Doesn’t take any willpower at all. In fact, I only exercise because it’s the most enjoyable thing I can think of to do. In that time I’ve never had to willpower myself to the gym. Not once. This is a good thing because I don’t have much willpower and could never sustain an exercise routine that would require it. You can read about my exercise here.

So, don’t beat yourself up. Find a sport that suits you and play! Don’t think sports are for you? Maybe you can take what you do and make it more sports like. If walking is your thing how can you “win?” Can you beat yesterday’s time? Can you beat yesterday’s distance? How can you make it more immediately productive? Walk to the store? Walk to work? Take pictures as you walk? Working with how your brain naturally works and how your body is built will make it easier to do, more fun, and more rewarding. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.