“…activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness…”

  • Definition of “exercise” (Oxford Dictionary)

The title of this post might seem an odd choice for someone with an MSc in exercise physiology and a PhD in neuroscience who heads a “rehabilitation neuroscience” laboratory and who leads a very physically active lifestyle. So, what’s the deal here?

 Well, it’s simple really. I really think that the word “exercise” as most people conceive it to be is an “evil” concept. Of course I don’t really mean evil in the sense of “wicked” but rather as in corrupted and used in a wrong way. And exercise is this kind of evil for several reasons that may not be immediately obvious.

Nowadays we have lots of information telling us that we ought to be more active. Usually it’s framed in the form of how much “exercise” we need. The very name “exercise” suggests something “extra” that you must do. And that’s at the root of the problem.

Recommendations like those made in 2011 the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) on how much exercise healthy adults should get and how it should be prescribed are not huge surprises. There are many recommendations in this position stand and most are quite detailed. They include specifics like doing moderately intensive cardiovascular exercise for at least 30 minutes each day, at least 5 days each week.

Lots of important and specific recommendations are contained in position stands like these. We know that being physically active does all kinds of good things for our brains and bodies and is a key factor in our overall energy balance and health. These position stands serve a very real purpose and are quite valuable as guiding tools.

In my opinion, the most important point in this position stand is found in a very general statement in the ACSM paper. The statement reads “a program of regular exercise that includes cardiorespiratory, resistance, flexibility, and neuromotor exercise training beyond activities of daily living to improve and maintain physical fitness and health is essential…” The key part that we’ll come back to is “beyond activities of daily living.”

In North America we hear lots about our sedentary and overweight population and a big issue with this is energy balance. Simply put, to maintain an animal—whether it’s us humans or our pets—at a consistent level means that energy in needs to match energy out. It’s about energy balance.

Basically we can think of how much energy we need just to stay alive plus how much we do with “exercise”. The energy needed just to maintain us alive is our basal metabolism—the “background” energy. Added on to this is the energy we expend moving in the world each day—the energy related to our activity (some of which we might call “exercise”). If you are an elite cyclist the exercise activity number is pretty high and if you are completely inactive (sedentary) that number is pretty low.

 The truth is we need both to be higher to be healthy and we’ve known that being physically active is important since practically forever. Way back in Western “antiquity” Aristotle (384 BCE – 322 BCE) wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics that "…insufficient exercise destroy one's strength, and both eating and drinking too much or too little destroy health, whereas the right quantity produces increases or preserves it…”

 So clearly it’s not a new concept, the idea of exercise. What’s new is that the entire landscape of what it means to be a human being—a full-fledged member of the animal kingdom here on earth—alive and well in the 21st Century has changed radically.

 That’s because most of us now live in a zoo.

 In a zoo, animals don’t have to get their own food. Zoo animals don’t have to struggle to get sustenance every day. It’s just given to them. As a result, a major part of being an animal—searching down food—is removed from the energy balance equation. In our human zoo (let’s call them “cities”) we don’t have to do much to get our food and as a result our balance is way out of, well, balance.

 Going back to the ACSM recommendations above the key phrase is “beyond activities of daily living”. If your daily living is in the restrained confines (and well stocked food supply) of a zoo, it’s quite difficult to manage energy balance.

 This is why the concept of exercise that we now have is insidious and “evil”. It connotes something that can be done as extra to your normal daily living. Instead, physical activity needs to be part of your life. The whole reason your brain evolved as it has is to keep you moving. You are an animal too, don’t forget, and animals move to stay alive.

 Moving to stay alive doesn’t have to mean evading predators in the wild. Our brains crave sensations of movement as the feeling of being alive. When we don’t keep ourselves physically active, this failure to move creates a cascade of events that cannot be simply fixed by having a workout. (Although the workout is still a good idea!)

 This leaves us with two choices--return to foraging or manual labour in the fields or hunter-gathering or come up with a new option.  Really this is the only choice. Taking this option means continuing to do the activities we like (your daily exercise if we must!) each day but changing our overall lives so we do more basal physical activity. We need to increase the background activity of our lives.

I am not saying we are supposed to abandon all aspects of modern life, ditch our cars, and become hunter-gatherers. Instead we do need to think more deeply about what it means to be another animal alive in the world. Moving around is a big part of being an animal. Let's get moving. It really will make us feel better.

 I hope that by now readers will realize in my title “Exercise is Evil” I was giving an ironic nod to Christopher Buckley and his 1994 novel (and eventual satirical movie) “Thank you for smoking”. Despite the title of that novel it was a bitterly anti-smoking tome.

 Exercise may be evil, but it’s a necessary evil that can only be overcome by changing your activities of daily living.

 In my first post of 2014 I will follow up on this idea with my practical suggestions for applying the implications of this post in your everyday life. And my advice might just be a way to actually help keep any New Year’s resolutions about becoming more physically active.

 © E. Paul Zehr (2013)

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