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.
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.
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.