This is one of those posts that I wrote and rewrote a couple of times before I finally just said “fuck it” and decided to say exactly what it is I wanted to say. I had initially started out thinking I’d write about all of the reasons I felt privileged to be able to “work out” – and by the way, I use the phrase “work out” as sort of shorthand, even though I don’t really like the phrase because it makes physical activity seem like a chore, like cleaning bathtub grout or scraping the litter box – but for the most part I wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t been said before.
I mean, yes, I am extremely grateful to have a healthy, functioning body, and I am flabbergasted on, like, a daily basis over the fact that I have made it to the age of 34 without ever having been hospitalized or undergone surgery or been on medication for an extended period of time or even broken a bone. (Not even a toe bone! No bones at all!) I also know that I am stupidly privileged. Like, when I think about how easy my life is compared to the lives of so many other people, and for no other reason beyond I got lucky, my brain starts to hurt from the galactic unfairness of it all.
But I also feel like there’s another way in which I’m very privileged, and that is that I get to make the choice to take care of my body by basically having fun.
The more I learn about bodies and fitness and health, the more it becomes apparent to me that physical activity isn’t some optional thing that people can just decide to do if they want to have a firm ass or big biceps or whatever. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that our bodies have evolved over time so that regular physical activity is required for our bodies to be healthy and functional. Absent regular physical activity – and I don’t just mean the recommended 30 minutes a day, but moving about pretty regularly – people have a higher risk of all kinds of health problems, regardless of what they weigh.
For most of human history, though, people got their quota of physical activity by doing really hard work that, quite frankly, sounds pretty awful. Like, take laundry in the days before laundry machines existed. It was a whole day of hard labor for housewives and domestics. And that’s not even taking into consideration people who work in mines, who farm, who do construction, and so on and so forth. In fact, it’s hard for me to find a period of time when it didn’t seem like the majority of people in the world weren’t spending most of their time engaged in difficult physical work.
Even persistence hunting – where people basically run their dinners to exhaustion – seems like a pretty rough way to go through life. I have to say, I like that when I go for a run it’s a generally a pressure-free way for me to relax, and not something I have to do so my family doesn’t starve.
My life of relative leisure means I have the ability to choose how I get my body’s required physical activity, and the way I choose to do this is by engaging in activities that give me a lot of joy and pleasure. I’ve said it repeatedly, that I would not do the things I do – running, cycling, lifting weights, etc. – if I did not enjoy them. That I get to spend a bunch of my free time basically engaged in play – and that in doing so I am taking care of myself – strikes me as a pretty serious privilege when compared to the entirety of human history.
I think there’s a tendency among people in the U.S. to think of working out and physical activity as this mind-numbing bit of drudgery and that you just grit your teeth and get through your recommended 30 minutes a day so you can cross it off your “Responsible Adult” checklist. And then because it’s considered so horrible and because no one is actually forcing you to do this item on your “Responsible Adult” checklist, it’s easy for it to fall to the bottom of the list and maybe fall off altogether.
I can draw a pretty clear parallel between this and the way I used to hold my nose when eating green vegetables when I was a kid so I didn’t have to taste them, and then when I became responsible for my own food I decided not to eat them at all. But then what I realized as I got older was that the problem wasn’t with the vegetables themselves but rather the way they had been presented to me, often boiled and without much in the way of seasoning. When I learned how to prepare vegetables in ways I found appealing – steamed or roasted, with olive oil and sometimes even with bacon – I found that I not only liked them, but that I actually wanted to eat them.
I feel that way about physical activity. I don’t doubt that the idea of spending 30 minutes on the stairmaster or the treadmill is horrible for a lot of people, but the awesome thing is that those aren’t the only options available. Just like I can eat my brussels sprouts caramelized with bacon and dried cranberries, people can get physical activity by playing in a recreational softball league or taking belly dance classes or trying out DVDs in their living room or climbing mountains or riding your bike around the neighborhood with your best friend or going for walks around the neighborhood to check out Christmas lights. There are as many ways to be physical active as there are people in the world. (And of course, if you don’t want to be physically active at all, you don’t have to. That’s your right. You don’t owe it to anyone.)
None of this is meant to say that I think the role of technology in modern society is beyond critique. Rather what I’m trying to do is make the argument that those of us who find ourselves facing increasingly sedentary lifestyles don’t have to see this as a catastrophic trend, nor do we have to accept the belief that the only way to deal with it is through embracing drudgery and boredom. I’d much rather look at it as an opportunity to bring more fun and pleasure and playfulness into our lives by giving us the choice to do things we enjoy.