A Case of Lambs and Lions.
What the hell are you doing?
After spending a few years in gym environments, you can spot them from a mile away. The lambs. They walk on to the gym stage with close to knocked knees and a meek demeanor, an over-caution out of character in any part of their world that isn’t, well… this. A lamb tip-toeing around lions with small shuffles, an almost-implosive posture for fear of taking up space, lifting something that’s too light or dropping something that’s too heavy. In constant angst of revealing their lamb-wool, or at having already let slip the fibre of their fur, they take unsure glances left and right rarely peering above the horizon. They tinker with alien machines, read instructions and proceed with caution. Through cornered eyes they attempt to mimic the repetitive movements carried out with such vigour and confidence by the local lions who prowl methodically, mechanically, and, most importantly, without joy, across the gym floor.
Since retiring as a lion, I have grown to admire and respect the lambs. As it turns out, they are the ones that have not yet been rendered idiots by the ‘health and fitness’ industry. Their meekness comes not from weakness of character, but from highly justified scepticism. Their sideward glances stem not so much from question such as “what am I doing”, but rather “what the hell are you doing..?” And quite rightly so. What the hell are you doing?
If Exercise were a Breakfast Cereal.
‘I move because… I want to move.’
‘Exercise’ has become a problematic word as a direct result of the health and fitness industry’s monopolisation of ‘exercise’ and promotion of it as the primary means (even the only means) of becoming, well, ‘fit’ and ‘healthy’. Whilst we won’t delve into the misleading (and often outright false) appropriation of the terms ‘fit’ and ‘healthy’ and their suspect packaging, we will pull out the online Oxford and take a couple of notes:
Engage in physical activity to sustain or improve health and fitness.
synonyms: […] “pump iron” informal
Just as breakfast cereal conglomerates monopolised the ‘most important meal of the day’, so the ‘health and fitness’ industry has monopolised ‘exercise’, and with it the methodology and processes surrounding it. So what’s the big deal? People exercise, they get healthier and fitter, the desired effect is achieved, right? Yes, that’s correct. If you eat Cornflakes when you wake up, you can justifiably call that breakfast.
Some people, however, are interested in more than Cornflakes. When they think about breakfast, they hope for more than wispy cereals that can be crushed to dust in the palm of your hand. Perhaps they imagine various dairy products, fresh meats and vegetables, colourful fruits and a variety of textures and flavours, of salty, sweet and sour, of enjoyment and experience above sustenance and routine. The problem is, what other options does Kellogs give you? Cornflakes… Special K… Coco Pops… Rice Crispies… Shredded Wheat…
Exercise has become Cornflakes; a rather bland means to an end. More problematic, however, is that it has become the means to every end. You want to get ‘fit’? Exercise. You want to get ‘healthier’? Exercise. You want to improve performance to compliment another movement discipline? Exercise. You’re feeling lazy, like you just don’t move enough? Exercise. You want to lose fat or build muscle? Get into the gym and exercise. It’s as simple as Arnold puts it in the opening scenes of the iconic 1977 bodybuilding documentary, Pumping Iron:
“You look in the mirror and you say: ‘I need more deltoids, more shoulders’, so you get the proportions right. So what you do is you exercise and put those deltoids on.”
Interestingly, the Austrian Oak is completely justified here in his advocation of exercise. After all he is a bodybuilder, and exercise methods characterised by repetitive, hypertrophy-inducing movements have proved the best approach in such a discipline whose primary goal is muscle growth toward an aesthetic ideal. We could even argue that Arnold’s use of term ‘exercise’ differs drastically from our first Oxford definition, as the priority of ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ falls by the wayside when aesthetics take priority. But we’re in luck. Because the Oxford offers us another, much more general definition of ‘exercise’, one I believe should, in the least, be reverted to if we are going to loosen the lion’s share over human movement which the ‘health and fitness’ industry currently holds:
an activity carried out for a specific purpose.
I’ll admit, this second definition also falls into the trappings of the first in that it’s the very definition of a ‘means to an end’. What it does do, however, is alleviate us of the compromised terms ‘health’ and ‘fitness’. With the conglomerates out of the way, this newly sparce and streamlined definition allows for much more movement and phrases such as ‘I move because… I want to move.’ This is our first step into toward a more joyful and authentic understanding of human movement.
‘You Don’t Need a Reason to Move.’
The modern world of ‘exercise’ is no longer concerned with the genuine pursuit of ‘health’ and ‘fitness’, but a commoditised circus run by suits that wish you health enough to increase your desk-life.
Imagine a world where no one suffered for lack of movement. It’s easy, if you try. No cars nor sedentary-provoking technology, no airplanes in sky. Imagine a life without the need of exercise, with physical activity spread intermittently throughout the day, rather than the desperate hour in the evening. Some gathering from the ground, some plucking from the trees, regular sexual activity and relaxation in the spare time. More stressful and physically challenging moments would occur when crossing difficult terrain, when hunting and when being hunted.
Okay, perhaps not so easy to imagine. Through some ill twist of fate, it’s easier to envisage a world absent of physical and psychological ailments caused directly through lack of movement. Because this is our world. A world in which we are forced to give movement a reason; a justification. And too often, those reasons only come once shit has hit the fan; when we are either fat, depressed, weak, sick, deformed, ill-functioning, or, more commonly, a combination of them all.
Exercise: ‘an activity carried out for a specific purpose’ – whilst this new definition is a step in the right direction, if we want to avoid the problematic connotations of ‘exercise’ entirely we have two options: number one, reduce the definition even further to ‘an activity carried out…’, or, perhaps the easier option; drop the compromised term entirely. Because ultimately, modern exercise constitutes an extremely narrow-minded interpretation of human movement, and as a result a damaging interpretation of human movement. The modern world of ‘exercise’ is no longer concerned with the genuine pursuit of ‘health’ and ‘fitness’, but a commoditised circus run by suits that wish you health enough to increase your desk-life. Not only does the ‘health and fitness’ industry take advantage of the tragedy that most of us have almost entirely forgotten how to use and move our bodies, we are also charged for having done so and for the pleasure of receiving its inadequate and narrow-minded remedy.
Exercise: An Inadequate Remedy for Movement Amnesia.
If you have to put your dog on a treadmill or make it pull or push heavy objects in order to get ‘fit’ and ‘healthy’, both you and your dog have some pretty serious issues.
Let’s re-humanise our lambs and lions for a moment. The lambs are anyone who feels the urge to move, but can’t quite remember how to move; the source of all their ailments is ‘movement amnesia’. They know they should move more, however – less than a call to health, fitness or better aesthetics – theirs is the more primal sensation that living like a diet-confused herbivore (i.e. little movement and consistent grazing ‘not on nutrient-poor grass, but nutrient-rich burgers or nutrient-displacing corn-syrup’) is not only somewhat abnormal, but also self-destructive.
Forgetting how to move might sound idiotic; and it is. But guess what. That’s exactly what sedentary homo-sapiens have done. And I’m not talking about some metaphysical concept of becoming ‘one’ with our bodies, I’m talking about the very real neuro-physiological consequences of lifestyles which thwart movement. The human brain models and re-models itself in response the ways that it is used – or not used. It is, as neuroscientists like to call it, plastic. The same goes for your spine, the organiser of all your movements. If you are not using a movement pattern or range of motion in your muscles (e.g. a full squat, reaching completely overhead or pulling the shoulders completely back until they touch), the neurological receptors responsible for bringing about those movements will turn dormant. We can call this ‘motor amnesia’, and, in my experience, it affects not only the layman but even the most highly-trained athletes too.
Whilst it’s easy to point a finger at one of the main culprits – modern lifestyles which idealise the ‘comfort’ of sedentary living over regular movement, the chair over the squat, automotive over physical locomotion, and work cultures in which the body
is merely transport for the brain (think ‘Master-Blaster’ in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome) – there is also another guilty party in this equation: the ‘remedies’ which we have developed.
We can rudimentarily classify three remedies offered by popular culture to those suffering from motor amnesia and seeking some form of recollection:
- Joining a ‘formal’ movement discipline, such as some type of martial arts, dance, or movement specific sports such as climbing or surfing.
- Individual and team competition sports such as football, basketball, tennis and athletics.
- Commodity ‘health and fitness’ with all the pseudo-bodybuilding, mechanical fetishism, ‘functional’ training and Zumba-fied ribbons attached.
Whilst very few of these options are concerned with treating ‘motor amnesia’ (each one often falls short in exploring one range of motion or another – such is the nature of sports and movement disciplines), the most popularly accessible and benefit-toting remedy, is of course, number three. After all, not only is the clue in the name, but ‘health and fitness’ is the home of ‘exercise’ and ‘exercise’ is where it’s at, right? So you buy a new pair of trainers, some skin-tight under-armour paraphernalia and a gym membership. With new-found motivation (buying your team’s shirt does wonders for improving a sense of confidence and belonging) you enter the gym floor vibrant, ready to photosynthesize the health, the fitness, the exercise, the calorie combustion.
The scene, however, is quite different. You see people doing rather, well, peculiar and repetitive movements, people making near pornographic faces and sounds, people plugged into machines in some mechanically fetishistic coupling, metal, rubber, plastic, skin, sweat, pain. Fun, right? Cue, the lamb: the tip-toeing, the avoiding looks, the air of a lost child, the near-reluctant movement mimicry… do not be mistaken, my dear lions. That lamb-like demeanor is not one of meekness – it’s one of both confusion and skepticism.
Put it this way: if your dog is overweight you should feed it a bit less, take it out into the field a bit more and let it do its thing (i.e. moving). If you have to put your dog on a treadmill or make it pull or push heavy objects in order to get ‘fit’ and ‘healthy’, both you and your dog have some pretty serious issues. Anyone looking in on your overweight, physically disabled dog pulling around increasingly heavier weights and then running inside a hamster wheel would quite rightly share a similarly skeptical reserve.
So don’t mock the lambs. The fact is, they haven’t bought the idea yet and are probably wondering how the hell everyone else has. Perhaps they’re wondering, what did I miss that’s got all these lions so riled up? More likely they’re thinking, ‘really? This is it? This is the thing that I haven’t been doing that’s going to change my life? This is what ‘fit’ and ‘healthy’ people do? This is movement?
But there’s no time for questions in the lion’s world. To detract oneself from questioning what the hell it is that they are actually doing, a lion prefers to pass around dogmatically simple and self-preserving motifs such as ‘No Pain, No Gain’ and ‘Just Do It’. We could even change a popularly misogynistic meme to serve for comic effect: “I exercise, because I haven’t got a clue what’s going on.”
Everyone Hates Exercise.
Modern ‘health and fitness’ exercise is as facile as it gets: pseudo-movement in an attempt to resolve the inevitable effects of a life of non-movement
Looking back retrospectively over almost 29 years of movement, I would say that exercise is the movement I enjoyed the least. In fact, after a little reflexive dissecting of motive, reward, and the definition of ‘exercise’ itself, I can honestly say that I have never enjoyed one moment of exercise. Quite possibly, I hated it. But I will never know exactly to what extent I hated it because I’m not sure how many of the countless joys, pleasures and rewards I experienced through physical movement were confusedly attributed to exercise when they were, in fact, due to some quite different reasons. It seems that Muhammad Ali shared similar sentiments:
If one of the greatest sportspersons to ever walk the earth didn’t enjoy his physical training, what hope do mere lambs and lions have? Perhaps we can start with where Ali did find his unbreakable motivation; in his dream of being a champion. Whilst Ali detested the gruelling training necessary to become a boxing legend, it was all worth it to be The Greatest.
If you happen to meet an enthusiast for long distance running, ask them why it gives them joy. If they say ‘because it’s great exercise’, they are lying both to you and themselves. Having said that, more likely responses would refer to the ‘runner’s high’, the masochistic pleasure of feeling your body completely exhausted, even on experiencing meditative states as the body is given over to the monotony of a singular movement pattern repeated for up to hours on end. Crossfit enthusiasts athletes – love exercise? Not the ones I’ve trained and trained with. Exercise is their enemy and, as such, they tackle it head on in a brutal attempt to be the ‘fittest’ they can be. They will either defeat the workout, or die trying. The reward is not exercise: it’s an extra kilo on a bar, an extra repetition, a faster time, an increase in capacity and workload. It’s the culture, the camaraderie, the family. Bodybuilders? I trained like a bodybuilder for over eight years and I can tell you that exercise sure as hell gave me no pleasure. What I did enjoy was the eerie sensation of my muscles feeling as if they would pop with the amount of blood that I filled them with; “the pump”, a sensation most notably compared by Arnold Schwarzenegger to “making love to a woman and coming”. I enjoyed the moments of intense stress followed by ones of intense calm, the adrenaline during and the endorphins after. After time, I grew to love the simple sensations: the smell of old iron, the rough grips of old bars, the feel of dry chalk between the fingers and beads of sweat trickling from the nose-tip. I enjoyed the aesthetic development and the compliments, the routine and simplicity of the task.
Modern ‘health and fitness’ exercise is as facile as it gets: pseudo-movement in an attempt to resolve the inevitable effects of a life of non-movement, mechanical movements to be performed like machines (often in coupling with other machines), isolated movements designed to sedate the rightful angst toward our sedentary lifestyles. Without the driving competition of the competitive athlete, the long-distance runner’s combination of physical masochism and psychological serenity, Crossfit’s endless pursuit of greater capacity nor the bodybuilder’s neurotic drive for aesthetic ‘perfection’, the ‘health and fitness’ gig is left rather empty and, well, unattractive. Ironic for an industry whose promotion of exercise is largely concerned with making people more aesthetically pleasing.
In his book Exuberant Animal: The Power of Health, Play and Joyful Movement, author, human biologist and martial arts teacher Frank Forencich alludes to how mainstream culture’s de-contextualisation of human movement (and ultimately its rendering and re-packaging as ‘exercise’) reflects our ‘data-centric culture’, and warns as to what integral elements of human movement are lost in the process:
Unfortunately, exuberance and it’s close partners – passion and joy – are consistently underrated in mainstream studies of physical fitness, health and performance. These qualities are not given to easy measurement and tend to fall off the radar screen in our data-centric culture. We prefer our studies to be quantifiable and trackable. We want numbers that can be captured on spreadsheets and manipulated. Consequently, we know more about lactic acid concentrations than we do about joy, more about body mass index than we do about passion, more about treadmill performance than we do about enthusiasm.
We study and test, research and measure, drilling our knowledge down to the deepest levels, and then we wonder why people find exercise so dull and unattractive. We strip human movement down to the sterile elements of anatomy, physiology and biomechanics and then complain that no one wants to participate.
Movement VS. Exercise.
Live life dynamically. MOVE. MORE.
We should remember that the concept of ‘exercise’, the whole modern commercial ‘health and fitness’ industry (as well as their abstract goals such as ‘losing weight’, ‘getting fit’ and ‘becoming healthier’, on which billions of dollars a year are made) are historical phenomenon. No ancient Greecian soldier ever had the goal of being ‘fit’ or ‘healthy’. If they were actually fit and healthy and owned an impressive physique, it was as a side-effect of both their daily training and generally movement-filled lifestyles.
My father is almost seventy years old and is still engaged in full time work on industrial towing boats. He has never exercised a day in his life, and yet his physique and movement ability exceeds that of many of my friends in their late twenties. Why? His is a result of a lifetime of working on the sea and engaging in physical labour. He has always used his body for what it is designed to do: move. For him, exercise looks rather silly and is something most people do out of guilt for sitting on their asses all day.
World-renowned musculoskeletal and human movement expert, Dr. Andreo Spina, expresses remarkably similar sentiments to my father, albeit with slightly more gravity and refinement. For Dr. Spina, “exercise is a human invention designed to allow us to compensate for the fact that we are not living the way that we are supposed to” – I whole-heartedly agree with both of them. For too many of us (that is, most of us), movement is the thing that either we or other people do for one hour after work, three or four times a week. We even consider those people who meet this criteria to be, as if by default, ‘fit’ and ‘healthy’. Many of them, however, would still be classed as sedentary beings.
A Modest Conclusion: Exercise Less. Move, More.
‘Movement is not something to be concentrated in a specialized location at a particular hour of the day. Rather, movement is a way of life.’ ~ Forencich
The term ‘exercise’ has become highly monopolised in modern culture. Spearheaded by the ‘health and fitness’ industry, ‘exercise’ has become confused not only with abstract ideas of being ‘healthy’ or ‘fit’ (a concept more often than not gauged in the mirror and on spreadsheets than in any meaningful, humanistic context) but it has even come to be regarded as the be all and end all of human movement. Yes, exercise is a form of movement, but it is probably one of the most abstracted and soul-less forms of human movement out there. Sure, if you’re feeling a bit fat you can do some exercise, some repetitive movements to burn up extra calories and make your blood pump faster. You can make it your goal to burn away a couple of grams of fatty adipose tissue a day, make it your goal to increase your red blood cell count and build stronger arteries, veins and blood vessels. You can make it your goal to look like some abstract image of healthy aesthetics.
Yes, exercise will lead you to such benefits. However if ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ is really your goal, you’re just as likely (if not more) to get those benefits from other disciplines which involve not only more movement patterns, but more learning and, consequently, more passion and joy in the process. Climbing, dancing, skate-boarding, jiu-jitsu, surfing, parkour, capoeira, everything around and in between. Yes, exercise is often required in an effort to increase performance beyond one’s current level, but it serves better as a tool than as a discipline in its own right.
The problem, of course, is that ‘exercise’ in popular culture has been deemed as a discipline in its own right, and, giving it more weight, it has been popularised as the discipline to increase health, fitness, and even performance. That wouldn’t be a problem if the ‘health and fitness’ industry actually sold half of what it claimed to. When it comes to human movement I’ve seen more impressive skill, control, ability, aesthetics, health, fitness and fun in dance studios, martial arts dojo’s, in skate-parks, in the street and parks and even in the sea than I ever have in any commercial, mainstream Globo-Gym.
But we can’t let it stop there – not with the disciplines. Disciplines are not invulnerable to poisoning and once the labels ‘health’, ‘fitness’ and ‘exercise’ start being used for promotion, the bullshit starts. In the worst-case scenarios, bastard children such as ‘Boxercise’, ‘YogaFit’ and ‘Zumba’ are born. With more and more people growing disillusioned toward the ‘health and fitness’ industry and the soul destroying offer of endless exercise, the business has done what any good business would to a slowly-dying cash cow; they’ve re-packaged it.
The truth is exercise will not cure your ailments. It’s scope is too small, its design for performance enhancement, not life change. And whilst regular, intense exercise does carry the ability to bring about drastic physical (and consequentially psychological) change for those who have really let shit hit the fan, if sedentary movement habits continue to dominate the remainder of their lives their progress will be marred, halted, even made worse further down the line. As Forencich reiterates in Exuberant Animal, ‘Movement is not something to be concentrated in a specialized location at a particular hour of the day. Rather, movement is a way of life.’
Whilst committing to exercise means changing your evening schedule, committing to movement means changing your lifestyle. It requires you not only to cultivate a new relationship with your body and your movement (in)ability, but also to let movement weave it’s way throughout the seams of your daily business, not for the sake of getting ‘fitter’ or ‘healthier’, but because this is what you can and are supposed to do: MOVE. By thwarting movement and synthesizing it into remedies such as ‘exercise’ to be packaged and sold by multi-billion dollar conglomerates, we are selling out not only on the animal nature of our corporeal existence, but also on the passion and joy – the exuberance – to be enjoyed in indulging in your bodies desire for physical activity and expression of all kinds.