It’s a new year and you might be considering going back to the gym. Here’s a case for why you shouldn’t.
The Goodlife commercial opens with shots of darkened buildings at dawn, quiet and looming rectangle after rectangle. Slowly, people struggle out of their chambers like zombies from the Walking Dead to get to the gym because they know they should. There are shots of traffic, people stuck in cars, and a man alone stuck behind a desk working late into the night. The parting shot is the man who was alone arriving at an empty gym, again alone except for the staff working there. Throughout the video a stream of tweets appear:
“Don’t want to work out, I never do. but i still do #gymlife”
“Really don’t want to hit the gym, but going anyways..need to”
“So tired but going to the gym cause goals”
“I don’t want to go to the gym”
“Why is it so hard to go back to the gym”
“Long day of work calls for a solid workout sesh #notimeforsleep”
The commercial ends with the tagline “the struggle is real” , which makes exercise and taking care of our health seem like complete misery. In the tweets imposed on the film, everyone dreads going to the gym and yet they force themselves to go because they know they ‘should’. Why is Goodlife making exercise and movement appear to be such drudgery? They recognize how difficult it is for people to incorporate the gym as part of their daily routine. Perhaps they are hoping that the old ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ adage will push people back through the gym doors. Of course, hard work is an important part of reaching goals; however, the message that you need to push yourself even at the expense of sleep is a misguided and a strangely unhealthy message from a company that purports to help people get healthier.
Watching this Goodlife ad made me feel sad for the state of the health and fitness industry. It depicts life as a series of tasks to slavishly get to: working out being just another item on the long list of to do’s .
Where is the good in the Goodlife? Where is the joy, fun and connection? Instead of trying to soldier on with the same old solutions and pushing through an impossible situation of trying to balance work, family and exercise; how can we innovate our approach to health so it is less of a struggle and more accessible for all? We will explore the alternatives in the second half of this article.
I’m not suggesting that there aren’t people who have made positive changes in their life with the gym, but they are the exceptions not the rule. Let’s look at the statistic. Health Canada recommends 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week. According to Statistics Canada, only 15% of the population gets the 150 minutes of exercise per week and only 5% get it across the further recommendation of spreading those 150 minutes across at least 5 days. If 95% of people are not using the traditional workout method, including gyms, then perhaps it’s not a problem of individuals, laziness or a lack of willpower but a more general challenge of how we live and work.
Only 5% of the population is getting the weekly recommended
150 minutes of exercise across at least 5 days
The commercial itself highlights the problem of gyms: they are alien to the very way we live. Throughout the commercial we see people struggling to get to the gym, fighting through traffic, getting into cars and trains, but you don’t see anyone actually arrive until it’s completely dark outside and the gym seems to be the only thing open with its 24 hour light beaming. The reality is for many people, there is not enough time and energy to make it to the gym no matter how much they understand it to be important.
So what’s an alternative to the gym? The clue is in the opening shots of buildings, offices and homes.
Think about the most common physical position people find themselves in these places. Hint: you’re probably doing it right now: sitting. We sit in cars, offices, trains, and at home. What good does going to the gym do in the face of 10+ hours of sitting a day? According to research, not much. Researchers found the amount of time a person sits during the day is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and death, regardless of regular exercise.
Exercise v.s. Movement
I would like to make an important distinction between exercise and movement. Exercise is based in a specific location and time for a specified amount of time that is intended to make you healthier. Often it is based on prescriptions given to you by someone else (e.g., a trainer) or based on the environment. Think about the various cardio machines which are so boring – gyms have to put televisions in front of them to keep you there.
Exercise is based on many shoulds, but rarely do you ever learn to start with your body, the needs of your specific body and move based on that awareness. The starting point is always someone else, somewhere else and separate from you, the person who owns the body.
On the other hand, our bodies have certain requirements for movement just as they have certain requirements for food, water and oxygen. Movement should be seen as a necessity and not compartmentalized to specific hours a week. Movement is about creating opportunities to incorporate practices that can help you become a whole integrated human being with mind and body in sync.
The most important distinction between exercise and movement is the extent to which we listen to our bodies in each approach. Exercise seems to overemphasize the experience of suffering and optimal performance as if we were all training for the Olympics. What I see in these representations, like the Goodlife ad, is a lack of listening, a lack of self connection in the process of caring for our health; ironically this disconnection can have a negative impact on our mental health. Exercising seems to mean that a person must dutifully put their body through the painful motions a workout at a particular time and place.
If I say I move, this means I listen to my body throughout my entire day and being in constant contact with my body. It is tells me about what it needs and I respond accordingly. This does not mean that I neglect my work or the things I need to do. In fact, being mindful of the body empowers a person to be more grounded in their reality and to use their body and attention effectively. I use movement breaks as a way of energizing me, making me more flexible, more capable and more focused. Each break can be as short as one to two minutes and occurs every 20 to 30 minutes.
This constant checking in with myself allows me to feed my body the movement that it tells me it needs whether that be a rest, standing up and stretching, getting some food or something more active like jogging on the spot or shadow boxing. By bringing the body’s intelligence into your daily life and nurturing it with movement you gain access to much more vitality and energy to create and work than if you leave your body stuck in a seated position.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING TO THE BODY
Whether in the gym, the office or at home, one of the primary health challenges people face is a lack of awareness of their bodies. It could be that they are ‘mind-lessly’ running on treadmills while watching tv or ‘body-lessly’ sitting slouched over a computer for hours at the office. One of my main concerns with gyms and the fitness industry is that they train people away from listening to their bodies and more towards what people should be doing. The tweets above are an example of this.
The good life can be lived throughout an entire day; it doesn’t have to be confined to the gym. I don’t believe that anyone should feel that they have to neglect their body while at work. In fact, neglecting our bodies at work inevitably leads to reduced work productivity, poor mental health, absenteeism, sickness and injury. Be warned however; one of the consequences of listening to your body is you may hear messages, or experience feelings of pain you have been ignoring. You may hear the low back pain from the sitting, the hunger pangs you usually ignore or maybe even an uneasy feeling in your stomach regarding a strained relationship with a colleague. Although it may be difficult to hear and acknowledge these sensations in the beginning, they mark the beginning steps for taking care of your health in a sustainable and meaningful way that will help you to be more effective in the world.
Intentionally moving your body throughout your day increases your awareness of all its many parts. Through the daily practice of movement, you start to feel better and become more aware of its needs. When you get into the habit of listening to your body and moving it, you realize you always have choice when it comes to your body, your mind, your perspective and your attitudes. My hope is this writing will encourage you to rethink the importance of gyms as a place for health and realize that health can start wherever you are and whenever you are willing.
If you haven’t been to the gym for a while, I’d suggest focusing on incorporating more movement into your life first. This could mean going for more walks, taking stretch breaks, doing some light jogging or squats or push-ups whenever you can. But most importantly learn to listen to your body throughout your day; specifically the sensations and needs it is telling you about all day long whether it has to do with hunger and the need for food, or physical sensations like stiffness and the need to get up and move.
The good life is not going to a gym to lock up the human frame on treadmills mindlessly running while watching tv. This only further alienates the mind from the body. The good life is bringing the goodness of movement into your day so you can be truly healthy. When you free the body and freely move in all environments you can bring life and health into every moment.
http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-003-x/2011001/article/11396-eng.htm According to Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines from CSEP (Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology)
Healy, G.N., Dunstan, D., Salmon, J., Cerin, E., Shaw, J.E., Zimmet, P.Z. and Owen,N. “Breaks in Sedentary Time: Beneficial associations with metabolic risk” Diabetes CareApril 2008 vol. 31(4) p.661-666
Biswas, A., Oh, P.I.; Faulkner, G.E.; Bajaj,R.R; Silver, M.A.; Mitchell, M.S.; Alter, D.A;. “Sedentary Time and Its Association With Risk for Disease Incidence, Mortality, and Hospitalization in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis” Annals Internal Medicine.2015;162(2):123-132
Tim Sitt is the CEO/Founder of ThinkMOVE. Initially, he created ThinkMOVE to help others address the sedentary issue, which is associated to many long terms illnesses like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. However, the problem of being sedentary is merely a symptom of a larger problem; that is of stagnation. This stagnation impacts not only bodies but minds, relationships and eventually entire organizations.
Using an approach that is both personal and team-based, the MOVE program teaches various skills and exercises that participants can do throughout their day to help them move their bodies, minds, relationships and their work to new heights. The program uses group workshop formats for teaching; one on one consultations for coaching and support; as well as a web based application to help remind participants to move and track their progress.Tim’s background as a Personal Trainer and Psychotherapist makes him well suited for creating the MOVE program that integrates physical and mental health. You can learn more about him and this work at www.thinkmove.ca