Just don’t do it: the case against exercise

An hour of basketball feels like 15 minutes. An hour on a treadmill feels like a weekend in traffic school.

David Walters

The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.


So you’ve been on the couch for the last couple of decades and one day you wake up, look in the mirror and recoil in disgust. You’re shocked at what you see and disturbed by what you feel. Disgusted with your lumpy, spongy form and its appalling lack of function, you resolve to turn things around, get back on track and whip yourself into shape. Your desperate mind searches for a remedy and quickly seizes upon a solution. That’s right, you’re going to exercise! Swept up in a fever of enthusiasm, you launch yourself out the door. You buy some new clothes, fill your bag with supplements and sign up for a program at the local gym. You’re ready to seize control of your fate and make a comeback. But sadly, you’re off on the wrong foot and your mission will almost certainly fail, possibly within days, but definitely within months.

If you’re like most people, you’re going to wind up back on the couch before you know it, nursing a beer and crafting a rationalization. Your problem is that you called the thing by the wrong name. That’s right, you used the word exercise. If you had thought it through a little more carefully, you might have had a better idea. That is, you might have realized that what you really needed was not exercise as such, but more physical movement. To some, this may sound like a case of hair-splitting, but there’s actually a vital difference here, one that’s lost on most Americans as well as a great many coaches, trainers and PE teachers. Understanding this distinction will take us a long way towards regaining our lost physicality and maybe even improve our relationship with the world at large. By the end of this essay, I hope to convince you to give up on exercise and start getting more movement into your life.

exercise is abnormal

The problem with exercise becomes apparent as soon as we begin to describe it. That is, exercise consists of doing abstracted movements in a stereotyped, repetitive pattern. In essence, exercise is a specialization extracted from a larger whole, an activity taken out of its natural context. Just as white flour is an extract derived from a more complex natural grain, exercise is a behavior that is stripped down and removed from its original setting. In effect, exercise is white movement.

The problem comes into focus when we take the long view of human history. When we stand back, we begin to realize that exercise constitutes only a tiny fraction of the human movement repertoire. The human physical experience includes a vast range of kinetic behavior: locomotion and exploration, play, hunting, gathering, scavenging, climbing, sex, dance, labor, gesturing and expression. Exercise is only a very recent and minor subset of all possible human movements.

Exercise also stands out as a glaring exception in the natural world. Across the entire range of non-human animals, we see no case of anything resembling exercise, especially in the wild. Yes, rodents will run on wheels in their cages, but this is mostly a matter of incarceration and frustration: put a running wheel into a natural, grassy field and rodents will not be lining up to run on it. In wild settings, animals will play, hunt, graze, explore, fight and mate, but never exercise. Even chimps and bonobos, our closest primate relatives, don’t display anything that looks like our version of exercise. They get plenty of action playing, exploring and chasing one another around the forest.

bored to tears

The main problem with exercise is that it’s all about sets, reps and mileage: just keep grinding them out until the clock runs out or your trainer tells you to stop. This, of course, is a recipe for monotony. And physical monotony, like any kind of repetitive behavior, tends to be hard on the bodymind and tissue. Keep stressing a joint, tendon or ligament in an identical pattern and you’ll promote inflammation and a lasting relationship with your physical therapist. Even worse, this sensory-motor monotony soon leads to a deeper, more disturbing psychospiritual monotony. Boredom deepens and the spirit becomes depressed. Resignation and apathy soon follow.

can we play?

Exercise also fails because stereotyped reps tends to drive out play. This is why it’s so hard to get kids to exercise. Their bodies are simply too smart to allow it. Treadmills are boredom machines; no healthy child will spend more than a few minutes on one. The contrast is clear: Exercise is about repetition of known patterns, but play is about exploration and discovery of new patterns. Exercise is about enduring unpleasant sensation while play is about finding delight in diversity. Exercise is about repeating the known, but play is about extending into the unknown. Exercise requires external motivation to maintain participation, but play is inherently rewarding and reinforcing. Exercise is about labor, suffering and denial, but play is about wonder and imagination.


Because of its repetitive, predictable and unpleasant nature, exercise ultimately becomes an adversarial experience: it’s us against the experience. Faced with the prospect of mind-body boredom, we start looking for motivation and incentives. Thus, the proliferation of boot camps, TV’s, carrots and sticks that we now bring to the exercise experience. We’ve even taken to programming artificial voices of encouragement into treadmills, stairclimbers and other exercise machines. And so, exercise ultimately makes a perfectly logical companion to that other famously adversarial health experience: dieting.

a non-solution

Exercise is commonly promoted as a cure for everything that ails our bodies and our spirits: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression and all the rest. “Just do more exercise” is the common prescription offered by both professionals and lay persons alike. But if exercise was actually the solution to our public health crisis, wouldn’t we be seeing better results? After all, experts and celebrities have been promoting exercise for decades and the state of the human body continues to deteriorate.

In fact, if we looked at the trajectories oflifestyle disease and exercise promotion, we would find that they track pretty closely with one another. If we looked strictly at correlation, we might even come to the conclusion that exercise promotion causes atrophy, obesity and poor health. Exercise advocates are quick to point to success stories. We hear about pounds lost, blood sugar normalized, heart disease prevented and bodies transformed. We hear about people who fought mightily against physical apathy and dragged themselves to the gym for weeks, months and years. And yes, they got results.

What we rarely hear about are the multitudes of people who tried exercise, found it to be a dreadful bore and dropped out. In fact, the entire health club business model is built upon the assumption that a substantial proportion of members will stop coming to the club shortly after signing the contract. In other words, failure is assumed, institutionalized and implicitly encouraged. In short, exercise has been a spectacular public health failure and an immense waste of human potential. The biggest consequence of exercise promotion is that we have managed to make millions of people feel guilty about their failure to do something that is inherently unpleasant.

start a movement movement

So exercise fails. Do we have a better idea? Yes, we do. The answer is authentic, joyful, functional movement. For those who have never seen or experienced it, authentic movement looks and feels nothing like exercise:

  • Exercise tends to be single plane; functional movement is multi-joint and multi-plane.
  • Exercise is monotonous; movement is engaging.
  • Exercise is specialized; movement is diverse.
  • Exercise is scripted; movement is authentic and intuitive.
  • Exercise is performed according to a program; movement is opportunistic.
  • Exercise feels mechanized and forced; movement feels expressive and creative.
  • Exercise is a means towards an end; movement is an end in itself.

Movement is better because it’s expansive and offers more options for physical creativity and expression. There’s more possibility and more room for the imagination. It’s more inviting, more engaging. And best of all, it’s less adversarial.

off the couch

So maybe it’s time to go out for a walk and re-think your entire mission statement for the coming year. Your best bet is to give up on exercise right now; you’d be doing that soon enough anyway. Instead, resolve to get some more movement into your life, by any means possible.

Of course, this emphasis on movement over exercise doesn’t get us off the hook: vigorous physical engagement is still essential if we want to improve or maintain our health. Sweat and exertion are still necessary if we want to reap the health and performance rewards. We still need to challenge our tissue and push our personal comfort zones.

So start by diversifying your efforts. Look for movement of all varieties. Be a movement opportunist; look for movement at home, in the workplace, in parks, airports and in the parking lot. But most importantly, look for dance. Dance with terrain, with gravity and with other human bodies. Dance with dumbbells, kettlebells and sticks. Dance with imaginary opponents and shadows on the ground. Dance with water, with bushes and with trees. Dance with finger cracks, faces and alpine ridges. Dance with stairs and sidewalks.

And remember, if it feels monotonous and boring, it probably is monotonous and boring. And if it's monotonous and boring, stop doing it! There are countless variations, combinations and permutations that are engaging and exhilarating. So mess around, play with the possibilities until you find a combination of movement, speed, resistance and frequency that works for you. You just might find a lifestyle that’s truly sustainable.

The value of play, diversity and randomness

In today's workaholic world, things are getting pretty uptight. In disciplines ranging from athletic training to classroom education, there's scarcely any room to move. Every detail of our curriculum is now pre-meditated, measured and monitored. We have become hypnotized by the illusion of our expertise and we have excessive confidence in our knowledge. In our quest for professionalism and results, we tighten up our acts to the point that people can hardly breathe. If all this screw-tightening actually worked, that would be one thing. But it doesn't. Our top-down delivery of expert knowledge actually deadens the learning process and inhibits personal ownership of education and health. And, from a neurological point of view, rigid programs may actually be inferior to messy, random and diverse practices.

Consider this masterful presentation by Gary Avischious, head coach at CoachingSchool.org. As Gary demonstrates, motor learning works best when it includes variation. And, not only does this principle apply to motor learning, it also becomes a metaphor for learning on any scale.

Coach Gary's perspective is reinforced by a recent New York Times piece How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect. The short story is that violations of patterns and expectation actually stimulate the brain to seek out meaning. In this respect, play and modern art both activate the brain in new ways and keep our minds active.

Now obviously, we can go overboard with play, diversity and randomness. An over-randomized program doesn't stimulate any training effect and simply wastes time. Nevertheless, it's time to loosen up our training and embrace some variation. Not only does it work better; it's also a lot more fun.

Go outside and be nice

Proponents of natural fitness have long been interested in the idea of biophilia, the innate human desire to affiliate with natural landscapes and living systems. Intuitively, this idea makes perfect sense, but the research on biophilia has been rather sparse. Some studies show that hospital patients recover faster when exposed to nature views, for example, but more work is needed in this area. Last week we found confirmation of the biophila hypothesis on Jonah Lehrer's blog, The Frontal Cortex.  In a post called "Nature and Compassion," Lehrer cites a study that found increased pro-social behavior in natural settings. This makes great sense from two perspectives: On the one hand, natural environments calm the body. Neuromuscular and sensory systems operate most effectively in their natural context; of course the body would relax and become more social in its ancestral setting. But if we isolate the body from the natural world (by incarceration in buildings, cubicles and vehicles), our bodies lose their normal reference points: anxiety, depression and anti-social behavior become more likely.

This is yet one more argument for getting out of the gym. If we're really interested in developing the totality of human potential, the best place to do it is outdoors.

Thanks to Jason Atwood at Playthink for finding this!

What's wrong with this picture?

The "friking amazing" persistence hunt video is going around and you've really got to see it. It gives us the flavor of an authentic persistence hunt and is obviously useful in giving us a sense of primal human experience. But don't get lulled into believing that this is the ultimate look at our ancestral heritage. These are true !Kung bushmen, but they are moderns and this is a re-creation of a historical event. Please note the shoes, the plastic water bottle and the metal spear. Not only that, we have to remember that this is only one hunt by one tribe in one bioregion, in one moment in time. Any conclusions that we might draw from this movie should be tentative.

Obvious flaws aside, this video gives us some good ideas for speculation. Most obviously, note the high level of environmental awareness. These hunters make every movement decision on environmental grounds. There are no highway cones, no white stripes painted on the concrete, no volunteers with stopwatches. Every single physical action is tied to terrain, plants, animals and weather. There are no arbitrary physical movements. Everything is in context. Everything is a judgment call. Walk? Run? Sit in the shade? All of these movement decisions are intimately tied to natural conditions. This is something we can take to heart. Instead of charging off down the road like a machine, we might do better to look around first.

Executive control and play within limits

“…I see that everything in nature arises from the power of free play sloshing against the power of limits.” Stephen Nachmanovitch Free Play Improvisation in Life and Art

"The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play."

Arnold Toynbee

Physical enthusiasts continue to grapple with the role of freedom and discipline in fitness and health. Some lean towards highly disciplined "work outs" while others prefer more intuitive "play sessions." As always, advocates for work and play will continue to call each other out, but the conversation may actually be moving to a higher level in pre-school classrooms.

It may seem strange to draw comparisons between physical training and early childhood education, but that is precisely where the future lies. We get a glimpse of this trajectory in Paul Tough’s recent New York Times article: Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?

The central issue of the story is "executive function" in young children. This phrase refers to the general ability to control one's thoughts and behaviors. Specifically, it means the ability to dampen or inhibit impulses coming from the emotional or limbic centers of the brain. Obviously, this is a fundamental skill when attempting to master literacy and scholarship, but it’s also essential to skill development at any age and in any discipline, from chess to sports to business. (See also Daniel Goleman's work on "emotional intelligence.")

The finding reported in this story suggests that fantasy or pretend play, when conducted within limits, leads to the development of self-control. Students who play out fantasy stories and situations learn to master their own brains and channel their copious energies. This practice is described as a blending of play and work.

Successful students in almost any discipline know the paradoxical truth: progress requires a blend of both freedom and discipline. Improvisation is essential; so are limits. Copious research into the nature of talent and skill has proven that immersion, engagement and deliberate, intentional action are essential to moving brains and bodies to higher levels. Recent books such as The Talent Code and Talent is Over-rated make a compelling case for deep and deliberate practice. It’s not grinding labor, nor is it frivolous dabbling: it’s improv within limits.

This is why the martial art model is so famously effective in promoting self-control and regulation, in both children and adults. Martial art is all about participation and engagement. The sensei lays down the limits and enforces them consistently. Practice sessions are full-immersion experiences and are highly physical. Within those limits, play is encouraged. Students learn to control their bodies, their behavior and their own cognition.

Our schools and our gyms could learn a great deal from this kind of practice.

Anatomy of a Rebound

"If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving."

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

In late August of 2009, I was blessed with a powerfully disturbing experience, an adverse event that challenged my patience, my endurance and my exuberance.

My original plan was to fly from Seattle to London to teach a weekend seminar on exuberant health and play-based fitness in partnership with WildFitness. All was well until I arrived in London and approached the Heathrow airport immigration counter. The officer checked my passport and told me that I lacked an obscure but essential legal document and that I would be detained for further investigation.

At first, I had no worries. Surely the authorities would see that I was a mere innocent, a physical educator with no nefarious motives. All I wanted was give a slide show, lead some movement games, walk around London a bit and go home. Once they looked into the matter, they would surely find my story credible and let me go my way.

But the authorities were unconvinced. They investigated my story, but remained unsatisfied. So I was escorted into a back room, searched, held in a lockup for 6 hours, interrogated and finally escorted onto a flight back to the states. Before I could say "Buckingham Palace," I was back in New York and then off to Seattle.

My entire mission was destroyed, my hopes for a great event dashed. Weeks and months of preparation were wasted, as was a substantial investment in airfare, hotels and related gear. Within a few brief hours, I went from being an exuberant health activist to an international outlaw and border crasher.

In the annals of human catastrophe, it wasn’t a true disaster of course. My life wasn’t threatened and I didn’t suffer extreme abuse or physical hardship. I still have a place to live, food to eat and friends to play with. Nevertheless, it was a powerfully upsetting experience that I would not care to repeat.

By all rational calculations, I should have been angry, distraught and just plain pissed off. After all, I had good reason. I was treated unfairly and rudely. The experience might well have been a blow to my disposition and my spirit; it might have derailed me for weeks. I might have become depressed or I might have wasted a lot of time trying to strike back at the powers in question.

But none of those things happened. Instead, my training paid off. I bounced back from the adversity in remarkably short order. Within a day or so, I was back to my quest, plotting my objectives and fleshing out my Plan B. Aside from the physical exhaustion of a nearly continuous Seattle-London-Seattle flight, I arrived home in a surprisingly balanced frame of mind. Sure, the trip had been a catastrophe, but somehow, I managed to maintain most of my equilibrium and in the process, I began to understand some of the elements that go into a successful rebound.

things fall apart

The whole process begins when life deals a surprise blow, an insult or a tragedy. An asteroid falls into your life and your most cherished ideas, beliefs and dreams are smashed to pieces. A divorce, a death, a job loss, an immigration fiasco; we’ve all had our share.

In the early moments, you’re flooded with raw reaction and primal emotion. You scramble to make things right, but your predicament is bigger than you are and events are beyond your control. At this point, you are shocked, traumatized and stressed.

As the catastrophe begins to sink in, your limbic system leaps into action. The fight-flight response goes into overdrive and stress hormones flood your bloodstream. Your emotional brain fires up and keeps on firing with a flood of anger, remorse, hatred, jealousy, bitterness and resentment. But it’s all to no avail. Your world is crumbling before your eyes and you are powerless to stop or even steer the course of events.

Eventually, the immediate threat and emotional reaction begin to subside, but now the mind steps in to review and replay the event. You call up the most impressive images, sensations and emotions. You relive the entire experience, over and over and over.

In many cases, we get stuck at this point, as our minds play back an endless loop of reruns. Over and over we rehash the event, retrieving the most disturbing moments from memory and solidifying their neural base. This replay process is perfectly normal, natural and healthy, but only for so long. When memories are retrieved, they become stronger and begin to take on a disproportionate life of their own. The more we rerun the event, the more real it becomes to us.

tell the story

Sometime later, we begin to translate our emotional experience into words and in the process, we start to tell a story to ourselves and to others. We may not think of it as a story in the classical, once-upon-a-time sense, but it’s still a narrative, an explanation of what went wrong. There are characters, events and tone, but most of all, there’s causality and responsibility, an explanation that helps us put our experience in order. Emotion will still play a part, but now our experience is mediated and expressed in words, paragraphs, chapters and volumes.

Our stories can help us rebound, but success depends in large measure on the tone and character of our narrative, our explanatory style. Cognitive psychologists have studied explanatory styles in detail and have discovered some intriguing and powerful patterns.

The most notorious is the depressive explanatory style. This kind of narrative is marked by statements that are personal ("It’s all my fault."), pervasive ("I always screw things up.") and permanent. ("I’ll never be any good at this.") People who tell stories in this style are prone to ineffectiveness and depression. After all, if things are always my fault and will be so forever, what’s the point in trying to change? Our language sculpts our spirit, our behavior and our ability to rebound. If I had used this sort of explanatory style in telling my story to myself or others, I would still be in a state of depressive stress. My rebound would have been weak or non-existent.

In contrast, the optimistic explanatory style tends to be transient ("This thing is temporary. It will all be over eventually."), controllable ("There are things I can do about this.") and specific ("It was a really stupid situation, but it was a freak, one-off event.") People who tell stories in this optimistic style tend to be more effective and resilient. Their language gives them a sense of control and possibility.

Unfortunately, many of us settle into a single explanatory style in early adulthood and stick with it throughout life, thus perpetuating patterns of reactivity and ineffectiveness. The danger comes when we get stuck on one level of explanation, one style of language or one level of abstraction. Our self-talk solidifies into a single point of view, a single flow of causality and a single tone with recurring themes. Static narration leads to static behavior and spirit; we become stuck.

The key to a successful rebound is to get some movement into our words and our narratives. Don’t bore yourself or your audience. Keep your language mobile and dancing. If you’re stuck, it might be because your language is stuck. Play with your words and see if things don’t go a little better. Describe your predicament from several vantage points and see what you like. If you’re not getting the result you want, tell a new story from a fresh perspective. This may challenge your beliefs about the true nature of the event, but stories are free and it will cost you nothing to entertain some new ideas.

"this will make a great story"

For me, the key rebounding moment came in a phone conversation to a good friend on my return to the States. I struggled to explain the fiasco to her, trying to capture the essential nature of the farce. Finally I concluded, "This will make a great story someday. Not yet. But someday." And suddenly, I felt liberated from the grip of my predicament. I knew that sometime in the future, I would be telling my story and laughing at the absurdity of it all. But if I was going to be laughing about this event a year from now, why not next week? And if next week, why not right now? I laughed at this realization. Things really weren’t so bad after all.

key questions

My rebound also hinged on a couple of key questions that helped me reinterpret my experience. The first - "Where’s the compassion?" proved extremely powerful for me, right in the midst of my interrogation. As I sat in a small room, on a chair bolted to the floor, I observed my immigration agent as she pored through my documents, casting a suspicious eye on my health-related papers and books. "Did you write this?" she glared, as if I was trafficking in national secrets. My mind reeled at the absurdity of the question, but after a moment, I began to think about her predicament. "What a shitty job she has, with such slavery to rules and bureaucracy" I mused. "She has to dig into people’s lives all day, treating everyone she meets like a proto-criminal." Suddenly, I was seeing things from her perspective. "This poor woman. I wonder what her life is like outside of this interrogation room. I wonder who her husband is and how they live. How very sad." Suddenly, I felt that she, not I, was the real victim of this preposterous system. This insight was profoundly relaxing. No matter what happened that day, I would eventually go home and back to a meaningful and creative life, but she had to live inside this Kafkian madness every day. Compared to her predicament, mine was a cakewalk.

A second question also helped me survive and rebound - "Where’s the comedy?" This was easy because my situation was saturated with hilarious material. I could just see the headline in the morning papers: "UK immigration officials keep country safe from threat of health advocacy and exuberant movement." And that was just the beginning. Every detail of the event was ripe for comedic interpretation and even now I can hardly keep from laughing. Fortunately, I managed to keep my mouth shut during questioning. Laughter does not go over well with grim, highly-stressed law enforcement officers.

social support

Like all good rebounds, my experience included some powerful social support. Even as I faced the reality of deportation and another endless flight across the Atlantic and North America (and another round of semi-edible food-like substances), I knew that I would soon have some great phone conversations with friends and family. The story would be a howler and people would get behind me as I told them of my plight. It also helped enormously to have the WildFitness team in my corner; I later learned that Tara Wood and Edward Drax had done some truly heroic pleading with the authorities. I was not alone in my plight.


I also got a bounce from the knowledge that I would ultimately have a voice in the midst of it all. As soon I was loaded aboard the flight back to the US, I began taking notes, sketching out my experience in the margin of a book. I knew that I would tell this story in one form or another and that realization gave me power. Even a blog post would get my words out. In other words, I was not helpless.

experience counts

Finally, I realized that resilience often comes down to a simple matter of prior experience or what my sensei used to call "time on the mat." I’ve been blessed with some wonderful adversities in my years and I’ve learned that I always manage to come back. All of us suffer through traumatic events, but things eventually run their course. The body calms down, rebuilds and relaxes its vigilance. Systems return to normal. If you’ve been around the block (or the planet) a few times, you know how the process works and you begin to incorporate resilience into your very sense of identity: "I’ve rebounded before, I’ll rebound again. I can weather this."

So, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. In the process, I’ve come to realize that if we want our training to be truly holistic, it’s essential that we become students of rebounding. After all, life is filled with capricious immigration officers and other jokers in the deck. We can’t predict everything that they'll do, but we can learn how to bounce back from their trickery.

And whatever you do, make sure that you get all the obscure paperwork in order before you approach the immigration counter at Heathrow airport. And please don’t mention my name. It won’t help you a bit.

recommended reading

Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process by Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, PhD.

Opening Up: The Healing Power of Emotions by James Pennebaker PhD.

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman, PhD.

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron

Land like a dancer

In mainstream physical education, nobody seems to know what to do with dance. Sure, it's exuberant human movement and people get sweaty and their bodies get healthier and all, but it's just not our thing, you know. We want sets, reps and labor. And most of all, we want to be able to quantify everything that we do with bodies. We want to be able to claim scientific expertise and certainty. But dance resists quantification and thus it's hard to manage, track, administer and control. So while dance may have its merits, we'd rather not deal with it. But now it's starting to look like dancers really have the edge. All that training they do pays off in great neuromuscular control, integration and coordination. And even more to the point, it pays off in injury-resistance, a quality that many conventionally-trained athletes would dearly love to posess. For proof, see the recent New York Times piece by Gia Kourlas. Research at the New York University Langone Medical Center's Hospital for Joint Diseases suggests that dancers' landing technique is superior to that of the typical athlete. See  "New Leaps in Research on Injuries."

Make it holistic

We've always suspected that holistic training is the way to go. The idea is to include and challenge the entire organism in movement: the whole body, mind, sensation, spirit and imagination. Isolating single body parts just doesn't seem to work very well. Now, good research is backing up this perspective. In Science Daily, researchers report that Knee Injuries May Start With Strain On The Brain, Not The Muscles. This is a fascinating report.

Food, inc

If you're an athlete or health professional, you care about food. You want to know what's in it and where it comes from. Food Inc, gives us the background story that everyone needs to hear. It's everything you've suspected about industrial food production, only worse. The movie will make you cringe, but it's also inspirational in its own right. Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and others come across as courageous advocates for a better world. See this movie, and visit the Hungry for Change website.

Get down


The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.

Rabindranath Tagore

Life at university, with its intellectual and inconclusive discussions at a postgraduate level is on the whole a bad training for the real world. Only men of very strong character surmount this handicap.

Paul Chambers

They teach in academies far too many things, and far too much that is useless.

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe


I’ve heard it said that deep within the halls of academia, Ph.D. doesn’t really stand for "doctor of philosophy." Rather, it stands for "Piled Higher and Deeper."

It’s a funny quip, a splash of dark humor usually uttered by disgruntled graduate students who find themselves mired in an impossible and possibly irrelevant project that threatens to drag on until the end of time.

But this phrase is more than just a throw-away line for frustrating moments in grad school. It’s actually a disturbingly accurate description of a culture that buries itself in mountains of abstract information while simultaneously ignoring the basic fundamentals of living. It’s a reflection of the fact that, in our headlong pursuit of higher knowledge, we’ve lost sight of an even more important priority: the health and education of the human body.

pile on

When academics talk about piling it on, higher and deeper, they aren’t kidding. The mountain generated by modern universities has become so immense that it threatens even the imagination itself. Abstract, specialized knowledge is multiplying faster than anyone, even Google, can track, and most of it has little or no relationship to the art of living.

So what exactly are the abstractionists putting in the pile?

Well, lots of data, numbers, clinical observations, references, footnotes, narrow specializations and filler. Anything that will be accepted by a journal goes on the pile. It’s "publish or perish," so everyone scrambles to get something, anything, into print. It’s got to be important, it’s got to be significant, but most important of all, its got to be high and its got to be deep.

The pile has all sorts of pieces to it, but in essence, most of it consists of material generated by non-participating consciousness. If you want to get published, you’ve got to step back from the thing you’re describing. You’ve got to get your body, your emotions and your passion out of the picture. You’ve got to pose as an unbiased, independent and completely objective viewer of the thing in question. The body is an irrelevance at best and an impediment at worst. Tissue is not to be trusted.

Descartes would love our pile, of course. After all, he was the one who started the whole thing. Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. Over the last few centuries, the mind has become our cultural identity and the presumptive solution to all our problems: I generate immense amounts of data and abstraction, therefore I am. No matter how onerous our predicament, we can think it all out. Give us a problem and we’ll apply the force of rationality and reduction. Have a problem with the body and public health? We’ll figure that one out as well. We’ll grind away on the problem and it will eventually yield to our intelligence, our computers, our administrations and our spreadsheets.

For the most part, modern universities treat the body as if it was simply a locomotor device for transporting brains from one computer terminal to another. If we could simply dispense with bodies entirely, we’d do so in an instant. If we could plug our brains directly into the net and suspend our bodies in a vat of nutrients, we’d make it so. Judging from our priorities, we don’t care about a wit about the body, its experience, its joy or its fate.

deal with the devil

As a culture, we’ve created a system that leap-frogs the fundamentals of human living. Consequently, we’re raising an entire generation of human beings who know almost nothing about how to live in their bodies or in this challenging world.

We know to program in HTML, Java and Windows, but we don’t know how to cook or eat.

We know how to ace an SAT, but we don’t know how to move our bodies functionally and gracefully.

We know how to set up a wireless network, but we don’t know how to rest.

We know how to use a social networking site, but we don’t know how to hold an actual face-to-face conversation with a live human being.

We know how to give a PowerPoint presentation on particle physics, but we don’t know how to breathe.

We know how to install a clever ring tone on a cell phone, but we don’t know how to manage stress in our lives.

We know how to design and market biomechanically correct shock-abosorbing shoes, but we don’t know how to walk barefoot on the earth.

The Greeks would be appalled at our inverted sense of priorities and our blatant disregard for the basics of healthy living. So would the ancient Chinese. So would any primal people.

For the Greeks and the Chinese, higher education was supposed to be an extension of lower education, a complement to the health of the physical body. It was never meant to be a substitute for human physicality or real-world knowledge. They had a sense of proportion in education; we do not.

We see the proof of our inverted priorities in the grim statistics on the state of the human body and the immense toll of highly-preventable lifestyle disease: According to the World Health Organization, at least 1.9 million people die each year as a result of physical inactivity. In 2005, more than 35 million people died of non-communicable diseases including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, etc. Deaths from non-communicable disease are projected to increase by 17% between 2005 and 2015. The human body is disintegrating before our very eyes.

We have made a deal with the Cartesian devil and the bill is coming due. By elevating the mind and devaluing the body, we’ve created a situation in which both are at risk. A sedentary, neck-up education doesn’t just create atrophy in the body. It also makes the nervous system vulnerable to the effects of stress. Overworked, inactive bodies don’t learn very well and are less resilient under pressure. Atrophy in the body leads ultimately to atrophy of the mind.

In his legendary TED presentation, creativity expert Ken Robinson described the modern school system as an assembly line for turning students into college professors. Each school is a prep for the one that comes next in line, the penultimate goal being a Ph.D. No one questions the trajectory of this system. We take it as a bedrock truth of educational culture; the whole point is to climb the ladder of abstraction. But in the process, we bypass the very things that might save the human body from its current spiral into heart disease, obesity, diabetes and physical unhappiness. We leap-frog over physicality, movement, nutrition, cooking, conversation, story-telling, rest and creativity. If you long to become a Cartesian college professor, the system is ideal. But if you want to stay healthy, you are going to have to look for something lower, much lower.

welcome to lower education

Lower education is alive in some places, albeit on life support, usually in the form of non-profit or no-profit organizations. Boy Scouts, adventure schools, experiential education, some martial art and yoga schools offer hope for the human body and the human experience. These programs tend to be body-friendly and offer practical instruction in life arts. But still, these efforts are almost always labeled as "alternative," thus diminishing their value. They are considered "elective," or "enrichment," not really an important part of our cultural identity. They are beside the point.

So it’s time for an excavation. It’s time to dig down to the base of the pile and recover what’s been buried for far too long. So imagine if you will, an Institute of Lower Education, an educational program in the fundamentals of physical living. What would the curriculum look like? How would it conduct its mission?

The course catalog would include subjects such as "How to live in your body," "How to prepare and eat real food," "How to walk, run, dance and move," "How to sit still, breathe and manage stress," "How to hold a conversation, tell a story and hold a dialogue," "How to build a sustainable lifestyle," "How to understand and live in the natural world," "How to create community" and "How to heal your body."

slower ed

Not only would Lower Education offer instruction and experience in the fundamentals of physical and social living, it would also bring a completely different philosophy of education to bear. In "higher ed," every action is plotted on a premeditated, scripted timetable, with courses and exams scheduled according to administrative calendars, not the pace of actual human learning or environment. In essence, higher education is a race with the calendar. Exam preparation resembles nothing so much as a cognitive speed-eating contest in which contestants gorge on textbooks and lecture notes until their brains are ready to burst.

In contrast, Lower Education would also be a form of Slower Education. Many of us are familiar with the Slow Food Movement, the cultural movement that began in Europe, a philosophy that emphasizes quality ingredients, pleasure and community. Some people have even proposed a Slow Fitness movement that would embrace similar principles.

Similarly, Slower Ed would move at the pace of the human body, the seasons and the environment. This is not just a romantic, hippie notion about rejecting modernity and returning to the earth, although that might very well be a good idea. Modern discoveries in neuroscience tell us conclusively that learning works best in oscillation and in harmony with circadian cycles. Instead of lunging desperately towards exams and cramming short-term memory to maximum capacity, Slower Ed would seek to synchronize instruction with both internal and external physiology (the environment).

a both-and solution

Ultimately, Lower Education seeks to put the body on equal footing with the mind and in the process, rebalance our educational culture. For the Cartesians, this is a radical, counter-cultural proposal and objections will be swift and furious. Administrators will protest a lack of resources, a lack of funding and a lack of time.

On a policy-making level, our proposal looks like a zero-sum game. If you want more time for PE, health and community, its got to come from somewhere and that somewhere would be our Cartesian subjects. At first glance, it looks like a classic "either-or." Either we educate the head or we educate the body. Choices will have to be made. There are only so many hours in each day and so many days in a year. Giving to the body will mean taking away from the mind.

Nevertheless, there is a win-win here. If we start giving the body its due, the mind is going to work even better. Give the body what it craves, give the human nervous system a chance to absorb the mountains of data we try to stuff down its throat, and cognition will improve. Allow the body to flourish in relationship to the natural cycles of the environment and all sorts of good things will start to happen.

Thus our plea: give the body a place in this world. Honor it in schools and in the workplace. Allow it to move and rest and explore and play. Give it a chance to thrive in harmony with the natural world. If we can do this, we might not have to pile things on so high and so deep. And then, we can relax and live.

Right on the mark

"As a people, we have become obsessed with Health. There is something fundamentally, radically unhealthy about all this. We do not seem to be seeking more exuberance in living as much as staving off failure, putting off dying. We have lost all confidence in the human body."

"Nothing is more fatal to health than an overcare of it."

All you need to know about food

When it comes to talking sense about diet, nutrition and food, Michael Pollan is the guy to listen to. Not only does he clarify the history and problems of the modern diet, he also demonstrates a truly holistic approach to the body, one that shows that relationships are more important than things. Listen to this show: Michael Pollan Says: Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants

Partner-resistance: negotiation and rapport

If you've had the opportunity to do some partner-resistance training, you know how intriguing it can be. Not only does it provide physical challenge, it also gives us a chance to build rapport through physical negotiation. This is an experience that goes way beyond mere "fitness." Yes we're building muscle tissue, burning calories and making our bodies more intelligent, but we're also doing something profoundly interpersonal. This process and relationship has yet to be adequately described, but it has enormous promise. What exactly happens during partner resist? Sure, one person is "coach" and provides smooth resistance to his partner, the "athlete." On one level, it's just mechanical resistance, but it's a whole lot more than that. It's an interpersonal, interphysical conversation that's non-verbal and subcortical. We don't consciously calculate how hard to push or pull. Rather, we let our tissue make the call, always seeking out the sweet spot of mutually beneficial speed and resistance. This interaction is unique in the world of interpersonal relationships.

There is a vast, unexplored territory here and lots to learn.

Do what comes naturally

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn would laugh their heads off if they read this one: "Sporadic Play Activity as Beneficial to Child Health as Continuous Bouts of Exercise, Study Suggests." Resaerchers at the University of Exeter measured the frequency, intensity and duration of bouts of physical activity in a group of children and analysed the results against a number of health indicators. Their results: "...a child who accumulated short bursts of moderate or vigorous exercise throughout the day was just as healthy as a child who did a similar amount of activity over longer sessions."

This may come as a surprise to those who advocate for long, concentrated, adultified exercise sessions. But children's bodies know what's best: recess breaks and frequent play sessions throughout the day.  As the study author put it "If future research backs up our findings, we would do better to encourage young children to do what they do naturally, rather than trying to enforce long exercise sessions on them.