I recently had one of my most miserable training runs ever. There were “reasons” it was harder than usual, but that doesn’t change that there was little about the experience that I could truthfully call “enjoyable.”
In those moments, it is easy to start asking (again) why I put myself through such experiences. Is exercise, especially something like distance running, really “fun?” I think the honest answer for most runners is . . . not always, or maybe even not usually. We enjoy the benefits, which are many, but calling the activity itself “fun” may be a misuse of the word. In fact, most exercise itself is quite uncomfortable. How can we call something uncomfortable fun? Let’s face it, if most exercise were truly enjoyable, we wouldn’t have so much trouble doing enough of it, right?
The evidence that our bodies are designed to be very active is overwhelming, as is the science proving how much harm our current inactivity is doing to us. But, according to a recent Center for Disease Control study (2018), only about 20% of adults get the recommended amounts of exercise. Kids are not much better. Studies on exercise during the pandemic show we were even worse in 2019.
So, if we are “built” to need physical activity to be healthy, why is it so hard to get off the couch and hit the gym? If we need it so much, why don’t we love it? Something must be wrong with us personally. We are bad, lazy, unmotivated, or somehow broken, right?
The natural instincts we are up against in this exercise battle are explored in the book Exercised, by Professor Dan Lieberman (2020 publication). He has spent a lifetime performing and studying the science behind what our bodies and minds are designed to do. His conclusion: Our bodies are designed for movement, but our minds tell us to be as sedentary as possible. So, when we feel the pull to stay on the couch, we are doing exactly what our very DNA is telling us.
In addition to our bodies being structured to move to survive, there is a counterbalancing drive, equally necessary to survival. Our drive to be active developed mainly because it was needed to get food (energy)–which has always been hard to do, until now. Almost all other “survival” adaptations are geared toward conserving that energy once we have it. In other words, when we are not getting food or (ahem) having kids, our instincts tell us to be as inactive as possible. So, we are programmed to move enough to grab the pizza, but then sit on the couch to eat it, and stay there streaming Netflix.
Congratulations! You are living in the first era of human history where you can get food without expending much energy, and then don’t have to burn that energy to stay alive. You really can just sit most of the day (bed to car, to office chair, to car, to couch, to bed; repeat). Consequently, this is the first time in history that humans have a chance to regularly get more energy than we must expend to stay alive. Our bodies store the excess for an emergency, which, for most of us, never comes.
So, it is time to cut ourselves some slack. This challenge is not about being lazy or lacking self-discipline. That desire to stay on the couch instead if lacing up the running shoes is exactly what we are wired to feel. The whole idea of voluntarily choosing to burn energy is completely foreign to our survival wiring.
So, what are we do to to overcome hundreds of thousands of years of development? The truth is we (humans) haven’t figured that out yet. Dr. Lieberman (and everyone else I’ve ever read or heard on this subject) recognize that the global suggestions sound trite and are not yet very effective. Historically, humans do sometimes move just for fun (like, maybe sports or dance). But we have mostly moved when we must–to either get food or avoid becoming food. That real necessity is gone for most of us. So, the solution is to create necessity, fun, or both, for exercise.
It seems we have detected these essential components and are taking steps toward creating that necessity and fun. Knowing that a friend expects you to show up for a run or workout makes it feel more necessary. The spin class (even on line) makes it feel more fun. Building social obligation into exercise plans boost consistency for many people. Adding enthusiastic trainers, music, and other media into a routine keeps others going. Efforts to build movement back into regular activities are on the radar of city and building planners–bike paths, stair access, walkable communities, etc.
I constantly use “invented” necessity and fun as a way to keep my own activity level high. I am a member of a running club and (more recently) swimming group that look for each other, ask if we will be “there,” and follow up if we try to disappear. This all adds to the feeling of “necessity.” Those same friends make the actual training more “fun.” There are times when I get myself exercising by watching a game or movie, or listening to music, books, podcasts while doing it–all adding to the “fun” (or, at least, making it less hard). I also think the fact that I, and others, perceive me as an exerciser/runner creates a “need” in me to not disappoint my social group (tribe?).
Finally, our “superpower” as humans is our ability to work together. Our solutions to this modern problem will clearly involve working together. We can help each other find enough necessity and fun to get moving again. Let’s share ideas, here and elsewhere, join together as friends and in groups, talk openly about our challenges, and, above all, STOP wasting energy on guilt over how hard it is. When has “hard” ever stopped us before?
I encourage you to share your own challenges and ideas below: