For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering an email that reminded me of an idea I once had that I’m convinced could really work: organizing group workout sessions like fitness bootcamps only instead of a guy barking orders as you perform a completely arbitrary set of exercises with little regard for technique, the group performs “workouts” that are actually acts of volunteerism. This makes your workouts truly count, not just as stimulants of fitness improvements but to the other people your efforts touch. It addresses an important aspect missing from most fitness programs. Humans used to perform physically demanding tasks on a regular basis in order to live, eat, and thrive. It wasn’t “exercise” or a “workout,” but it made us fit, strong, and fast just the same. And it was essential to living. It helped our immediate family and communities.
We’ve lost that, but training as volunteerism can bring some of it back.
I live in Texas where the “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign against littering is losing the battle. On my daily walks with my dog (weighted vest on board) I’ve started picking up trash along the walk. I’m going to start carrying a large bucket and some work gloves to this end. I just wanted to share this in the hope that you would write a post about it to spread the idea.
I don’t think much can be done about the people who litter but if enough folks would go out to “gather” it could really make a difference and set an example. I think putting it out there as a great form of natural exercise that mimics our natural history might just work and you have the platform for it.
Thanks for reading!
Great suggestion. What are some ideas people could try? How can we turn our workouts into volunteerism?
Trail clearing/maintenance: Join a trail crew. Get a bunch of people together to join with you. You get to hike while carrying tools and performing manual labor requiring a variety of movements, like squatting, climbing, reaching, lifting, hauling, cutting. It’s hard work, to be sure. But it’s rewarding. You’ll be maintaining an incredibly vital public good that we, as human animals, require for optimal health and happiness: the wilderness and our access to it.
Every state has volunteer trail teams. Just Google “[your state, city, county, etc] trail volunteer” and follow the links. It’s that easy.
Labor share with friends or neighbors. Pretty much every person with a home has some project they “want” to undertake, but it never happens. Doing it alone is too large a job and paying a contractor is too expensive. There’s no time on the weekdays, and you’re so tired of working that the weekends are off-limits. Is that really true, though? Everyone lives in their own little box separated by fences and lawns and driveways, each with their own plans. There’s a lot of redundancy. A lot of people sitting around wishing they could summon the will and elbow grease to tackle that project they’ve mulled over for years. Break down those barriers. The Amish have their barn-raisings. So should we. You probably don’t need a barn, but you can sure raise a chicken coop, tool shed, garden plot, or garage weight room. Be the one to broach the subject. You know no one else will.
Volunteering isn’t just relevant to anonymous strangers. You can volunteer to help out your friends, family, and neighbors, and they you.
Spruce up a neighborhood eyesore. Every neighborhood has that vacant lot with the weed strewn yard that makes you reconsider your anti-Roundup stance. It’s not just an aesthetic nightmare. These eyesores often tank a neighborhood’s property values. Cleaning them up, or outright demolishing them, can improve the financial situation of everyone around you.
Be sure to check with the property owner before cleaning the place up, clearing the weeds, and planting some flowers!
Plant trees. Most cities have tree planting programs because there’s nothing so dismal as an area without any trees. People go door to door planting trees and digging holes. Search “volunteer tree planting [your area]” to find a program in your hometown.
Cleanup. Although we’ve come a long way from just dumping our picnic litter all over the park, trash abounds in places it should not. Picking it up is great for the environment, and can be a great way to get in some movement.
Now, watch this video of Hadza men squatting around a monkey cooking on a fire. Note how they move through multiple positions while in the squat. They’re kneeling, going up on the toes, reaching, turning, and constantly shifting their weight from foot to foot. Instead of bending over with a rounded back to pick up that Snickers bar wrapper, try the Hadza squat. Plant yourself amidst a bunch of trash, squat down, and try different positions to retrieve it.
Beach cleanup. Beach cleanups are harder than any other type of cleanup because you’re walking for miles and miles on soft, spongy sand. There’s nothing more exhausting than sinking into the ground every step you take. You waste a lot of energy. Bad for a hunter-gatherer trying to conserve calories. Great for a coddled modern human trying to increase energy expenditure.
Google “[your area] beach cleanup.” No promises if you’re landlocked, of course.
Be a volunteer dog walker. This is pretty much the most Primal volunteer job ever. You get to hang out with your ancestral best friend, a dog. You get to do what ancient humans have done more than any other activity, walk. And although your humane society may not include this in the job description, bring along a tug-of-war toy, too. Playing tug of war is a great way to let a dog “strength train.” Dogs need more than just walking.
Google “[your area] volunteer dog walking” or head down to the local humane society.
Help a senior or disabled person. Next time you see Mrs. Jenkins hobbling from her car into the house or Bill the Vietnam war vet puttering around his yard making little headway on the encroaching weeds, ask if they could use a hand with anything. Ask if they’d like to make this a regular thing.
Those people tell the best stories and, if their memory’s intact, you can get incredible insights about the days of yore.
“Is Mad Men a realistic portrayal of corporate workplaces in the 1960s?”
“How good were McDonald’s fries before they switched from beef tallow?”
There’s always something to be moved, some furniture to be carried elsewhere, some garage to be cleared. Or even a dog to be walked. You’ll get a great workout, help a person who could use it, and hear some cool stories to boot.
Google “[your area] elderly neighbor volunteering.” That was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but it actually produces actionable results.
What do these ideas all have in common? They objectively help others. They are Good Deeds. And they’re a great way to get a decent workout, to stay active and mobile in the manner of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. There’s no downside.
But there’s resistance, isn’t there? It’s easier to not do the thing. It’s way easier to just not go help clean up a beach or a county park. And it’s definitely way easier to not introduce yourself to the neighbor who might need some assistance. I implore you: ignore that voice tugging at your elbow, telling you to move along. Just make the commitment, the introduction, the offer. The actual act of volunteering is quite often enjoyable, once you’re enmeshed in it. Workouts aren’t exactly pleasant, but we do them.
Just imagine the kind of change you could effect if, once or twice a week, you and 10 to 20 others got together to clean up a park, blaze a trail, or perform some other public good. Pooling efforts reduces the efforts required of the individual and maximizes the output—and benefit. And you get a workout, too, plus the chance to make new friends and connections. It’s the perfect fusion of selfishness and selflessness that we need to make good things happen.
I’ll leave you with a few more ideas to help you get started:
Join NextDoor, a sort of Facebook for neighborhoods. You enter your address and get linked up with everyone else in your area. It’s the perfect place to organize local efforts.
Start a MeetUp group. Feel free to link to this post, or quote sections from it to help convey the idea.
Google volunteering calendars for your area. Comb the lists and find something that requires physical activity.
Start a thread on the MDA forums. Share ideas, find local people to join you.
Let’s hear from you. Can you think of any volunteer opportunities that also double as effective ways to stay active?