Evolution tends to reinforce healthy, beneficial behaviors that improve the survival of members of a species by making them enjoyable. Sex, sleep, socializing, and animal fat either feel good, taste good, and sometimes feel and taste good at the same time not “just because” but because they are necessary components of a healthy, (re)productive lifestyle. And it’s not just the act that feels good. Evolution has also reinforced the anticipation of the behavior. At the prospect of sex, we become aroused, horny, randy, or whatever you want to call the pleasure of anticipation. Those long, delicious yawns that herald the surge of melatonin and promise excellent sleep as we slip beneath the cool covers with a good book? Nothing better. And I still get happy stomach butterflies when friends are coming for dinner and the scent of crackling pork skins fills the kitchen.
Okay, but what about exercise? There’s the endorphin and endocannabinoid high from exercising intensely, but that exists to keep us moving during an activity as we near the physiological breaking point. It doesn’t get us off our butts in the first place. If exercise is so good for us – and it is – why doesn’t everyone crave it? Why does it feel like a chore? Why do many people dread it so much?
Here’s the thing: exercise wasn’t always optional. If we didn’t chase down the antelope, we wouldn’t have dinner. If we didn’t climb that forty foot acacia tree, our glycogen-starved muscles wouldn’t get the honey. If we didn’t make the six mile walk to the spring, we wouldn’t have water to drink. We had to do these “exercises” if we wanted to survive on a day-to-day basis. There was no “Oh, I’ll just sit on this couch and eat microwaved pot pies and go to the gym some other time.” There was no selective pressure to evolve a love of exercise because we were gonna do it anyway.
Today, exercise is in a weird place. Exercise is optional, but it’s also not. Though being sedentary remains disastrous to our health, circumstance no longer compels us to move. There’s no trench-coated goon pointing a gun at us and nodding toward the treadmill, but plenty of “authorities” point their fingers and strongly recommend exercise on pain of disease. We’re buried in studies proclaiming the essentiality of exercise for good health. The message is clear and overwhelming: we’d better work out if we want to be healthy and live long. Just like they tell us we need to work the crappy soul-sucking job to pay the bills, they tell us we need to exercise for thirty minutes a day to stave off disease. For most people living in the first world…
Exercise is something you do to lose weight. It’s a mechanistic way to churn through the calories you’ve eaten and make room for the calories you want to eat.
Exercise is something you do even though it’s unpleasant. It’s like brushing your teeth, taking out the trash, and emptying the cat litter.
Exercise is about attaining a far-off goal.
Meanwhile, the journey – the actual experience of exercising, of moving your body through space and time, of challenging your physical capabilities – is forgotten. It’s not just forgotten, it’s willfully ignored. We actually try to shut it out, because the act of exercising is all pain and suffering and drudgery. It’s the goal that matters to us, the weight lost, the weight lifted, the miles logged, the calories burned, the beach body attained, the tickets to the gun show redeemed.
The evidence suggests that this paradigm doesn’t work all that well. A series of three recent studies illustrates this. In the first, researchers gave healthy adult women (most of them overweight) a map of a mile-long outdoor walking course and told them to walk it for half an hour. Half were told to treat the walk as exercise and monitor their exertion, half were told to enjoy the walk and listen to music. Both groups spent the same 30 minutes walking the same course, but only the exercising group felt grumpy and fatigued. And when they had lunch, the group who’d “exercised” consistently chose soda over water, pudding over applesauce, and ate far more calories than the “fun” group.
The second study placed a group of men on the same mile loop. Half “exercised,” half walked for fun. After the walk, they were given plastic baggies, access to an unlimited bowl of M&Ms, and instructions to fill the bags with as many as they desired. The exercise group filled their bags with twice as much candy as the fun group.
Finally, the researchers approached runners as they finished a relay marathon race and offered them a choice of snacks: a gooey chocolate bar or a “healthy” granola bar. Those who said the race had been difficult and unpleasant were more likely to choose the chocolate, while those who’d enjoyed the race usually chose the granola bar.
When working out feels like a chore, we demand compensation upon completion, often in the form of junk food. This can derail weight loss efforts, but it also perpetuates an abusive relationship with physical activity. There’s also evidence, at least in non-human animals, that voluntary exercise is less stressful than involuntary or forced exercise. If that’s the case, workouts that feel like chores heap additional systemic stress on top of the local stress the exercise already applies to the muscles. This could make it harder to recover from exercise and easier to recover from play – even if the total work done for each was identical.
How do we change our relationship with physical activity? How can we reframe exercise to make it less unpleasant and more effective? How can we train ourselves to appreciate the journey of movement?
Reframing our own activities and appreciating movement for movement’s sake can be tough. You won’t have a guy in a white coat wielding a clipboard and considerable amounts of authority telling you to “enjoy the walk” you’re about to take like the people in the studies.
You can’t expect to make everything fun and games. Few people think of hill sprints as “fun.” I can’t ever recall seeing a powerlifter rock a Cheshire grin in the power cage. But it has to be rewarding. You have to get something from it immediately. The activity must be its own compensation. The key, I think, is finding immediate value in the activity rather than relying on some far off goal, like weight loss, to motivate you. The weight loss, the hypertrophy, the fitness gains, all those “bigger” goals will happen anyway, but they’re not enough of a primary motivator for most people. I mean, everyone has those goals. They’re the reason most people decide they need to start exercising and why there are over 50 million gym memberships in this country. But by and large, they’re not reaching those goals. Something’s gotta give.
That’s easier said than done. Undoing a lifetime of acculturation isn’t easy. You have to willingly appreciate the flowers along the sidewalk, the birds in the trees above, the sunlight shining down, the refreshing sensations of unused muscles finally used. You have to realize that our bodies are built to move and need to move. We’ve got these shoulders that rotate almost 360 degrees. We can draw our knees up to our chins and touch our toes with straight legs and do the splits (in theory). It’s a crime not to use them – and you have to feel that. You have to find something of worth in the exercise as you’re doing it.
That could be a PR in the squat, or discovering that sprinting up the steep hill outside your place is getting a lot easier. It could be the the perfect high-five shared with a CrossFit bro after Fran that seems to make time stop and the universe shudder for a moment. Or maybe it’s the meditative flow state you reach when training, the peace of hiking through an ancient redwood forest, or chatting with your power-walking partner. It can also be the sheer joy we feel doing something we love to do, like play Ultimate Frisbee (winning doesn’t hurt).
It took me a long time to reach that place, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I suggest you try to do the same.