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.