Sometimes while working out at home I catch Buddha (my lab) just kind of watching me doing squats or pushups or pullups or burpees with this look on his face that says, “You feed me, walk me, scratch me, and water me and I love you for it, but what in Dog’s name are you doing?” He probably thinks I’m insane. You can’t really blame the guy. I mean, the stuff we do for exercise is pretty silly:
You’re walking on a treadmill, literally going nowhere for miles at a time.
You’re pedaling like a madman, but instead of seeing the landscape unfold in front of you, you’re watching MSNBC with closed captioning on.
You’re picking up a metal bar with weights on either end and putting it back down over and over again.
Hanging from an overhead bar, you pull yourself up toward it until your chest touches, then go back down and repeat it several dozen times.
Is it any wonder that many people find modern exercise to be meaningless?
Now, not everyone finds it meaningless. I’m a man who prefers a rousing game of Ultimate or a hike through the canyons of Malibu, but I can also appreciate a good strength training workout in the gym and an intense sprint session on the stationary bike. But a lot of people just aren’t moved by conventional workouts. And I think a big reason is that physical movement has become separated from immediate utility. We no longer have to walk, lift things, run, climb, or carry heavy objects to make our living, procure food, or get from here to there. Instead, we work out for promised, basically intangible benefits far off in the distance. If you can’t find immediate value in the exercises, you’re unlikely to do them.
But we do need to exercise. I’d love it if we could all simply incorporate regular movement into our everyday life, and mobile workstations, walking breaks, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking meetings, and short workouts in the office are bridging the gap, but formal workouts are still important – and I’d argue necessary – for health, strength, and fitness.
So what’s a person to do? How can we reinstill meaning and purpose into our daily activity and thus make it feel less like of a drag.
Start active commuting.
Ride your bike to work. Skateboard to work. Or how about rollerblading? Even hopping on one of those goofy recumbent bikes to bypass traffic is a good choice. Whatever the mode, research shows that active commuting is great for psychological and cardiovascular well-being. When compared to passive commuters (either train, bus, or car), active commuters are happier (PDF) and less likely to develop heart issues. They’re also, unsurprisingly, fitter.
Some people just can’t do it. If your commute is 60 miles each way, I don’t expect you to hop on the road bike every morning. If you’re 15 miles away, you’re not going to walk. But there are ways around it. You can always park a mile away from the office and walk the last fifteen minutes. Even those long distance commuters might be able to squeeze the occasional long ride in once a week or two, just to shake things up.
Do physical labor.
Maybe you’re looking for work but haven’t found anything in awhile. Or maybe you’re a student off for summer just kind of milling around in your hometown. If you need work, why not try physical labor? Do yard work, lay bricks, bust up concrete, be a farmhand or a fruit picker. You can even travel and become a WWOOFer (worldwide opportunities on organic farms – volunteer farm worker). All you need is a plane ticket somewhere and you can live, work, get really fit, and enjoy excellent organic produce in such locales as Hawaii, Costa Rica, Chile, Belize, Spain, Hungary, and over 100 other countries around the world.
If you usually hire people to do you yard work, start doing it yourself instead. It really doesn’t take that long, and it’s a fantastic workout. Physical labor makes you fit, just so long as you don’t drown your sorrows in drink and junk food.
Go into construction work.
The strength of construction workers is almost unparalleled (both old man strength and farm strength are in the running). They may not always eat the best food or do “cardio” or think much about their health, but those dudes (and ladies, as the case may be) are some of the pound for pound strongest people around. Best of all, it’s functional strength because it was strength developed by doing things in the real world. Construction work also tends to build grip strength better than any dedicated grip-strengthening exercise, so you’ll be ready to lift heavy things when you get back into the gym.
An ancillary benefit is that you’ll learn helpful new skills. Being able to build things with your hands is an important ability that will be extremely valuable when the rage virus epidemic hits and society crumbles around us.
Or if you’ve already got a job you like, pick up some carpentry skills on the side and work on some projects when you have free time. Build a tiny house. Demo that weird shed that’s been sitting in your backyard since you bought the place. Build a treehouse, or a home gym. There are some good online carpentry resources, but depending on how you like to learn the best bet may be to take a class at the local community college.
Do a charity event that you believe in.
There are charity fitness events every weekend, nearly everywhere. 10ks, walkathons, 5ks, what have you. You may not believe in every cause. You might find some superfluous. But everyone has at least one cause – a disease or a displaced people or an endangered species or a beleaguered nature preserve – they care about. And each one of those causes probably has a charity fitness event that you can participate in.
Whereas going for a run might sound like torture if it’s just to obtain the purported fitness benefits, going for a run to raise money for research into a cure for Alzheimer’s might feel more worthwhile. I find that Googling “[disease/condition/cause] charity run [your location]” usually produces some good leads. If you can’t find a local event, you may be able to be a “remote runner.” Just message the event organizers and see if you can’t participate from afar.
Plus, you could always just organize your own event. It doesn’t have to be a grandiose endeavor. You don’t have to solve world peace or save the Siberian tiger. How about raising money to feed local homeless (even if it’s just a few people) or help them start a farm? Start small.
Do nature clean up.
Whether it’s beach clean-up, forest clean-up, desert clean-up, roadside clean-up, or park clean-up, just go help clean up nature. Cleaning up natural areas is hard work. It involves a lot of kneeling, bending, squatting, and lifting, so be sure to practice excellent movement quality. Bend at and lift with the hips, not the lower back. Practice that Grok squat. You can even throw in some lunges, Grok crawls, and other bodyweight movements as you clean to increase the intensity.
But most importantly, cleaning up nature, well, cleans up nature. That’s where we come from, and we need to respect it and care for it. It’s still what feels like home. It is home. I don’t care which side of the environmental spectrum you fall on. Plastic bags, food wrappers, dirty diapers, and other bits of assorted human waste and garbage do not belong in natural environments. We can all agree on that, I hope (you’re not Don Draper, are you?).
As with charity events, you can find clean-up events easily by Googling “[beach/forest/park/desert/road/environment] clean-up [your location].”
Don’t shy away from helping friends move, renovate, or tackle big jobs around the house.
Instead of making up an excuse next time a buddy asks you to help move apartments or houses, go help. Moving large, bulky, heavy furniture through doorways, around corners, and up and down stairs is a test of brains and brawn. It requires – and develops – great strength, but it also forces you to coordinate with your carrying partner and plan your approach. Between tenuous grips and oddly shaped “weights,” these definitely aren’t perfectly balanced barbells. Even something as straightforward as loading up several dozen boxes of books into a moving van is an incredibly taxing workout.
Being the friend who’s always willing to help others move to a new apartment also gets you an important perk: they’ll help you when you need to move.
I’ll admit it. Making our workouts useful, utilitarian, and objectively meaningful isn’t easy. It’ll take effort and creativity. And it might take more time than we’d like, especially when we could just hire some guys for a few bucks to handle our yard work, donate to a charity instead of participating in a charity fitness event, and pay movers. But if you find conventional exercise to be meaningless, maybe a little inconvenience is just what you need.
Let’s hear from you guys. What objectively meaningful, useful, and utilitarian workout methods can you think of?
Thanks for reading!
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