Don’t take exercise like a pill


Minimum exercise required for the woman on this odd vintage vehicle.

bootcamp2015-small 2Obviously, a good exercise programme was always going to be high on my boot camp list of challenges. To prepare for a happy retirement without built-in exercise would just be ridiculous, a denial of all scientific evidence on the subject of aging.

 A funny thing happens every time a new research project confirms the power of exercise to improve cognition, physical health, mental health and happiness: lifestyle journalists tend to interpret the results in terms of minimum dosage.

If you just get off your bum now and then, they say, it’ll save your life. Just get on an exercycle for 15 minutes a week. Just walk for 10 minutes a month. Just roll over in bed. They’re assuming that weall want to know how little exercise we can get away with.

Of course, they may be right about our extremely low ambitions. And it’s true that any exercise, even a few steps per day, is exponentially better than no exercise at all.

However, aiming at the minimum implies that exercise is a tedious chore or a virtual vitamin pill. “Let’s get this over and done with as fast as possible so we can get into the tasty part of the day.”

Don’t take exercise like a pill

If you take exercise like a pill, it’s no fun. And if it’s no fun, the habit is not likely to stick. I should know: I’ve been there, done that.

For about five years, an exercycle sat in a corner of my living room. Perfectly positioned for watching TV. Grudgingly, cynically, I intended to use it for just 15 minutes once or twice a week in the evenings. I figured that would not be hard. But it was. The ugly beast was as good as new when I sold it on Trademe.

Similarly, a set of weights is lurking amongst my gardening tools. For a couple of months I used them twice a week … then once a week … for just 10 minutes or so each time. They’re getting rusty now.

When it comes to exercise, less is not more: less is less. And before you know it, less becomes nothing.

So in my boot camp I decided to shoot for a happy-making programme. It’s only a small jump from exercise as a duty to exercise for pleasure. I need to be rewarded by more than a sense of righteousness: like most people I need immediate gratification too.

Your pleasure is my drudgery and vice versa

Everyone’s different! Isn’t that great? So don’t imagine I’m telling you what sort of exercise programme you should be following.

I never got any joy from a brief session by myself on the exercycle: it was not an end in itself for me—but some people get a buzz out of that.  Working the dumb bells all alone in my lounge seemed pointless—but you might just love it.

The thing is for each of us to find a programme that suits us personally, something that brings its own rewards so that we are eager to achieve.

Exercise as a pleasure

Exercise as a pill is unnatural and I suspect, counter-productive. If you enjoy tennis or golf, for example, you don’t set out to do the minimum. You don’t say to your friends, let’s just have one serve each, or let’s just play two holes. Where’s the fun in that? You play as much as you can, not as little as you can, because you are playing for pleasure.

The pleasure of companionship or at least company. The pleasure of muscles squidging, joints loosening, skin glowing, heart pumping, chest expanding, feet steadying, a good shot. The pleasure of increasing mastery. The concomitant pleasures of better sleep, better mood, better brain.

No matter what your age, the best exercise brings a quiet sense of power and freedom and satisfaction. On so many levels, it feels good!


Image from “Cycling art, energy and locomotion: a series of remarks on the development of bicycles, tricycles, and man-motor carriages” (1889) by Scott, Robert Pittis. Internet Archive Book Images. Photo of me cycling in Tonga by Jamie Bull.

15 thoughts on “Don’t take exercise like a pill

  1. lifecameos says:

    Looks like cycling is fun for you, not just exercise.

    1. I only do exercise that I enjoy.

  2. For exercise I like a low bar. I’m waiting until they come up with a pill for it but in the meantime I have found that developing a group of friends who go to the gym at the same time helps. We talk most of the time we are exercising and that makes it go fast. My husband bikes a lot but the traffic in our area is too busy for me. I used to love to play racquetball but that sport has fallen out of popularity. Hard to find courts and partners.

    1. You have got the exercise thing well and truly solved! I can’t bike in the city ever: wide open spaces or nothing! I do like the group gym date idea.

  3. Lovely post and excellent point re: exercise.

  4. Dan Antion says:

    Very good points. We do try to get our exercise.

    1. “We” is a key word here: company ups the motivation and the pleasure, right?

      1. Dan Antion says:

        Well, we don’t exercise together, but we encourage each other.

      2. That is so good.

  5. Robyn Haynes says:

    So true Rachel.And it is very individual. In my case it’s a little game I play with my mind. I make a decision the night before and roll out of bed to walk for an hour the next day before I can talk myself out of it. If I’m walking with friends there is no argument from my inner self because it’s such fun. On my own I work on becoming consciously mindful of the environment and arrive home with ideas and pictures for my writing as well as an overwhelming sense of well being and virtue. It works for me. I’ve been doing it for decades now, ever since I gave up running.

    1. What a trickster! I love this picture of the game you play. So many writers go walking for reasons like yours. For a while I thought all writers had dogs, for that reason

  6. Gail Rehbein says:

    What a wonderful photo of you Rachel! Your face is beaming with enjoyment. I agree wholeheartedly that exercise is best enjoyed rather than done through obligation. There is amazing chemistry that happens inside our bodies when we exercise. When we come to exercise freely, I believe we amplify those benefits even more. As you know, bicycle riding is one of my pleasurable pursuits and I know my body and mind thank me for every pedal I turn. 🙂

    1. Thanks Gail. Tonga (main island) was a special place for cycling and we loved it. Recommended!

  7. Aunt Beulah says:

    My Aunt Beulah and I both agree with every word you wrote here. Through the years, my idea of enjoyable exercise morphed here, morphed there, morphed, morphed everywhere. Now it has narrowed to long, solitary walks, including hills and a moderate pace, where my mind wanders free to the movement of my body and my best writing ideas flow into my head. I love it.

    1. Then you have arrived at the classic writer’s exercise regime, common variations being walking the dog and a long walk on the beach. Perfect synchrony of mind, body and spirit!

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