Stop doing so much exercise

My friend and wonderful human Dr Bex Scott wrote a fascinating and thought-provoking paper on why we pay for pain, specifically the ‘Tough Mudder’ type assault-course-pain. I love that she has identified this strange desire in humans and thrown light on it.

In a world where many of us lead a predominantly sedentary lifestyle, there is a yawning gulf between our daily lives and then the extreme events that push many people’s bodies to their limits. The assault courses seem extreme – but is it actually the sedentary lifestyle that is the extreme in this scenario? And perhaps if we pulled away to a more varied and creative lifestyle, we wouldn’t crave so much for exceptional moments of achievement and exertion.

Could exercise and fitness be a fake friend for many? Maybe it disguises a natural desire to use our bodies but doesn’t produce the work that is supposed to come from that exertion. What if we have lost much of this generation’s artwork on the beaten rotating belt of a treadmill?

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Part I: raise your hand if you like endorphins

Exercise is great. Fabulous for mental health as well as the body. You can meet fun new people while you exercise. You can get good at sports, improve your agility and spacial awareness. It can help you feel more yourself and more confident. How great is that? I would be the first to say: that is all pretty great. But there’s something we’re not saying about exercise: it gets in the fucking way.

It’s a controversial thing to say because of the very important and unquestionably positive role that exercise plays in mental and physical health. Because it is so good. But there’s a saying – you may have heard it before – you can have too much of a good thing.

When you take some exercise, anything from a walk to a sweaty, 24-hour kickboxing marathon, you feel good – even if it’s tough (perhaps especially if it’s tough). You feel so good because your body releases endorphins and serotonin, which help to decrease stress and negative emotions while also having positive effects on your immune system. We are quite aware these days that exercise is beneficial for our health, so it feels like you’re doing the right thing. 

But here’s where it can get lost.

Sunset during a jog around Stockholm

Part II: burliness is next to godliness

Rabbit hole I: thin equals healthy

Due to a new, Instagram-fed fixation with slim bodies, how we view ‘fitness’ today is very much based on how visible it is, rather than how useful it is. We tend to assimilate slim and muscly bodies with health and fitness. I urge you to read the Health At Every Size manifesto if you tend to feel this way. It’s important that we understand healthiness disconnected from body image.

In the endless pursuit of rippling abs, toned arms and the myriad other holy grails of the body; you can never do enough exercise.

I can say with certainty and sadness; that either worrying about the size of a body, or over-exercising that body, has wasted many an hour that could have been spent doing something else.

Rabbit hole II: I need to exercise to clear my head

Traditional yogis use the repetitive motions of yoga to synchronise their breath and body. The sequences use just enough brain and body power to keep the mind in a state of alertness, while the repetition allows the mind to reach a state of meditative calmness. Yoga allows them to walk more closely to their devotion to the divine by training the brain and body to be calm, strong and focused.

Some people say that they need to exercise to clear their heads. And I can believe it. I think of the yogis and how they designed this practice thousands of years ago to, in a way, do the same thing. But there’s a messy, grey area where people rely on exercise – where the pain, the grit and even the reliance itself, become a sort of crutch to lean on.

Someone said to me about yoga: your mind and your breath stay in the same place throughout the practice, it’s just your body that goes in different places. And so it should be in life: you find yourself in different situations and positions, but your mind stays in the same place.

You have a busy brain? Mindfulness and meditation are your tools for this, not exercise.

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Part III: bench-press some Sontag

Dear creative. I implore you not to be distracted by the lure of over-exercising. It will not help you make your art. I suggest that you take a reasonable amount of exercise that makes you able to create the work you must make.

Keep yourself in optimal condition, but do not feel the need to carve your body into a taut and mirthless sculpture. What do you need for your work? Dancer – you may need to have a higher level of fitness than you, poet, but you both need to be able to run up some stairs and it never hurts to be able to touch your toes.

And finally: sit still and quietly every day. If we all meditated as much as we worked out, we probably wouldn’t work out so much.

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