“Humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, … and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.” – Sebastian Junger
Fossil records indicate that humans have walked the earth for about 200,000 years, but we’ve only recently developed the need to work out. Even 10,000 years ago, as agriculture made specialization and large cities possible, people rarely, if ever, sought out structured exercise regimens. Until the advent of the luxuries that typify our modern existence, simply living life made humans throughout history healthier and more capable than we are today.
Our standard model of modern living actively eliminates the need for physical exertion, while interjecting cues that prey upon our impulses. Our world is one in which we are perpetually seated, trudging from one chair to the next, while slowly eliminating opportunities for movement. Drive-throughs allow quick, seated access to food. Lawnmowers are self-propelled, if not seated. Home automation precludes the need to get up and write down a grocery list, let alone prepare a meal. Voice-activated entertainment devices have eliminated the need to even roll to the other end of the couch to retrieve the remote.
We sit through more and more of our days, staring at a computer, trying to make more money so that we can purchase more things that reduce our movement. The cycle seems to never end.
The Role of Exercise
This is where exercise comes in. After a few scary doctor visits where the ramifications of our physical decline are made vividly clear, we buy that gym membership we’ve been meaning to start. To be clear, I’m a big fan of this decision. Over and over again, I’ve watched exercise change people’s lives, and I know the benefit of having some qualified help to cut through the massive industry of gimmicks.
Still, I can’t help but be bothered watching the masses repeatedly fail. Some dabble, get bored or confused, and fizzle. Others never bring themselves to address debilitating physical deterioration in the first place. The cultural pressure to sit and eat is so strong, the pace of life and demand on everyone’s time is so great, and the depths of the general ignorance of health and movement is so vast, that most feel trapped by an inability to adopt healthy lifestyle patterns. How do we offer more constructive avenues to offset these growing trends?
Let’s reimagine our daily routine and re-insert human effort to accomplish essential tasks. Tribal living made our ancestors unbelievably adaptable, resilient, and physically capable beasts. No one struggled to “stay in shape.” Cronk never met privately with Gru to create a training regimen and carve out a weekly schedule where Gru trained Cronk in exchange for wicker baskets. Life required physical vigor, and that itself made Cronk and Gru strong and healthy.
Take a Look At Your Own Habits
Similarly, we can explore our own lives and create habits or routines that spur movement. This past year, I’ve made it a priority to take the obvious, easy opportunities life presents to move more. My office is in a school building, but all my training sessions are run in the athletic facilities, about a 600m walk from the main building. In my six years here, I am the only coach I’ve ever seen walk, rather than drive down.
The social pressure is a real factor. We tend to do what our peers do, particularly when that means saving effort. Being different takes a lot of energy, at first. Consequently, more often than not, I drove. It was easy to convince myself I needed to squeeze out every possible minute of office work and would need to drive the 600m stretch, saving three precious minutes. This year I finally dispensed with this absurdity. I make the daily walk, down and back, three times. I’ve suffered no loss in productivity, but find the sunlight and fresh air are a refreshing interjection into my work day.
When I get back to my office, I stand and work. Thanks to a $20 laptop stand, this has become a portable and adaptable daily habit. According to standupkids.org, normal weight kids burn 15-25% more calories at standing desks and obese kids burn anywhere from 25-25% more.
The Benefits of Creating Movement
When you examine your life, it is amazing how much seat time can be exchanged for standing or moving time. Why would you hunt for the nearest parking spot, when the furthest one is wide open, and you’re upset with your lack of physical fitness? Why pay for a housekeeper and lawn maintenance, when you have the time and you desire to be healthy?
The take-home message is that daily life can promote movement. Take advantage of the low-hanging fruit. Take the stairs, every time you are going less than six or seven stories. Walk across the office to ask people questions, rather than shooting off emails. Have walking meetings or business calls, rather than sitting and talking. Drink more water, so you are forced to walk to the bathroom. The more we leverage daily tasks into activity, the healthier we will be, and at hardly any cost.
We also have to confront our excuses. As long as she’s known me, my poor wife has listened to me rail on about how much I wish I could walk or bike to work. This is usually followed by a diatribe about cultural laziness and the messed up value structures of local communities. She pretends to have an emergency to tend to, and I realize that I’ve beaten this subject to death.
Recently, I decided to explore the limits I’d perceived surrounding my daily work commute. It is a 10-minute drive, stretching 4.3 miles, according to Google maps. The main roads I take have speed limits between 35 and 50mph, and drivers who’d be shocked to see a bike attempting to share their road, assuming they saw me at all. But I had been ignoring the vast web of sparsely-driven neighborhood streets. As I explored the possibilities, I was able to determine a route where I would never encounter a speed limit above 30mph. Rather than 10-15 minutes of sitting in the car, my commute became a 20-25-minute bike ride. I rarely see another person until the very end of the route and arrive at work appreciative for the fresh morning air and the slight surge of endorphins.
Explore Your What-Ifs
Imagine what your health might look like if these routines were part of your life. What if you biked to work each day, worked at a standing desk, and had a daily walking meeting? Add to this a twice-weekly racquetball game with a friend, a Saturday morning resistance workout, and a Sunday morning hike on a local trail. Without a lot of extra time, you’d see a tremendous increase in overall physical vigor.
What if this was normal behavior in your community? Imagine parents who habitually walked their elementary kids to school, before they grew old enough to walk or bike on their own. What if communities prioritized this to such a degree that clearly marked bike paths were featured on every street and were traversed by packs of middle schoolers each day? How autonomous and healthy might a generation be if they felt empowered to transport themselves across the community, after finishing a day’s work?
In Dan Buettner’s book, Blue Zones, he investigates communities around the world where life expectancy is highest and where centenarians (those 100 years and older) are most capable. These communities, he finds, are not littered with gyms and gym memberships, but prioritize moving naturally. As he puts it:
The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.
Anecdotally, this has been my experience. My mother’s great uncle lived late into his 90s. When I was in college, we visited him one Thanksgiving. I remember sitting around the table, stuffed, and watching as he came by to clean up everyone’s dishes. He’d been going all day. I put up a token resistance as he shooed me to relax. I commented to my father how inappropriate it was for me, an able-bodied 19-year-old, to sit back while this elderly man cleaned. My father’s response stuck with me. He said, “that is why he’s lived so long, and that is why he’s still so strong and vital. Because he’s always kept himself active. He’s never stopped doing the menial tasks most people look to avoid.”
Take Every Opportunity to Move
Perhaps there is a life lesson here that transcends just the physical. Why do we consider washing dishes such an inconvenience? Why are we always rushing from place to place, convinced that one of the perks of adulthood is that quick, air-conditioned car ride to work? Your commute may not allow your to bike to work, but there is ample opportunity to work more movement into accomplishing the tasks of daily life.
Let’s choose not to rush from seat to seat, and instead embrace the joy of moving as a way of life. Being healthy takes some guts. Not only do you have to exert yourself a little more, but you have to fight the social tide propelling you away from what is best for you. It is worth it for you, and worth fighting for in your community.