“…To move is all mankind can do…whether in whispering a syllable or in felling a forest.”
Even if we don’t recognize it, we have now designed our towns and cities—our environment—such that our lives now resemble those of zoo animals. But without the visitors from schools and the general public. Or maybe with them, if you count documentation on YouTube and Facebook.
In my last post I argued that even though we are members of the animal kingdom, we now have changed how we live so much that we don’t really live in nature anymore. This has many implications for how we function. A main example is the energy balance of animals. That is, energy in (the food we consume) and energy out (expended in activities of daily living).
Our cities really do resemble human zoos. If we have sufficient finances, we don’t have to struggle or physically do very much to get our food. And we may not see many obvious opportunities to be active. I want to focus this post on looking for those opportunities and building them into our daily lives.
Before doing that, though, I want to hit on a very important point. I said in my previous post that “exercise is evil” but stressed it as a necessary evil. We need to do exercise but must consider it part of our lives, not as a physical “magic pill” we can package into single daily bursts of activity separated from the rest of our lives.
Instead, our workouts or high intensity activities must be viewed as the highest active periods of an already active day. It’s critical to appreciate that living a sedentary life punctuated with a bout of activity every day is not successful for most people. I think it’s much easier to think about changing overall our activities so we don’t have to think as much about “exercise”.
At the most basic physiological level we are a set of stimulus-response reactions. If we strain our muscles by lifting weights (the stimulus) our bodies will produce larger and stronger muscles (the response to increased use). On the flip side, if we don’t use our muscles for anything vigorous (remove the stimulus) our bodies will spend less energy on our muscles and they will get smaller and weaker (the response to decreased use). This all occurs because physiological systems are thrifty and maximally efficient. If your body doesn’t have to expend energy to maintain muscle tissue, it won’t. Efficiency is a theme I’ll return to below.
Living in a zoo means we have removed many of the background stimuli that would help keep us active with our bodies in motion. Or, more to the point for this post, may still be there but are harder to see. This effect can be very subtle to notice, even if you think you are paying attention.
In my own case I am very active. I walk lots, move around throughout my work day, do “walking meetings” whenever possible, and maintain my daily regime of martial arts training. I had a real eye opener, though, last year at an exercise science conference.
Earlier in the year I received a NIKE FuelBand and had been wearing it regularly. Like other physical activity monitor you can buy (such as the Fitbit or Jawbone), the FuelBand tracks your activity level in terms of step count, estimated energy cost (in calories), and a proprietary “fuel” count. To be honest, I originally thought the whole idea of these kinds of activity monitors to be of uncertain utility. But that was before this little experiment I accidentally did while at the conference.
I had set and monitored my levels on the FuelBand for several months before going to this conference. Like most such events, the conference was contained within a convention centre and a few closely located hotels. I maintained my normal martial arts training regime while staying at the conference but was stunned to notice how low my overall daily activity levels were on the 3 days at the conference.
In fact, those 3 days at the exercise science conference (where lots of talks were about the benefits and application of healthy, active living) are the lowest 3 day daily activity levels I have ever recorded after using the FuelBand! Can you say “irony”? This really highlights the point that in self-contained environments like the “zoo” of our cities or the micro-zoo of the conference itself, we really have removed physical activity as a necessary part of functioning in the world.
The point I took away from my experience is that it is very difficult to keep physical activity levels up just with "added exercise". Instead, we really need that need increase our basal background level of activity. So many of us try to add activity through exercise, which is a good idea. But it isn't enough.
Now, the main event--what can you do about this? What can you do if you live in a zoo?
Well, you need to become more inefficient. You need to be very inefficient with your activities and work against natural inclinations. For example, most people load up their arms with bags when they are unpacking the car. That’s a time efficient response because it means fewer trips back forth. I’m saying take more trips with less in your arms. Do the exact same thing when setting or clearing the table. And so on, and so on. These suggestions are inefficient in terms of time but it will help add a steady increase in your background activity.
Here is my list of suggestions for becoming more energy inefficient and increasing your background activity level:
1) Never lie down when you can sit;
2) Never sit when you can stand;
3) Never stand when you can walk;
4) Never bike when you can walk or run;
5) Never drive when you can ride (a bike);
6) Seek out opportunities to be active (like walking meetings at work)!
You can apply this way of thinking to almost any scenario. Other examples include taking the stairs instead of an elevator and walking up or down an escalator instead of riding it. If you seek out these opportunities you will begin to slowly pile up the background activity in your life.
Whether you are doing it now or just getting started on a new approach to your life, hopefully you will begin to see your “exercise” as just the most active part of an already active lifestyle.
It’s good for your body and your brain and it will make you feel good too.
© E. Paul Zehr (2014)