You don’t need to go to the gym

Italy
Walking around Praiano on our last night there.

I love our doula for a number of reasons, but one of the first moments in which she stole my heart was when she looked and me and said, “You don’t need to go to the gym.”

She didn’t say this because I’m exceptionally fit; she said it because she believes that no one has to go to the gym. I have always believed this, but now, thanks to her, I finally have a more comprehensive philosophy to back up this long-held personal conviction.

Before sharing a short primer on what I’ve learned, here are the cards I brought to the table.

Gyms are a waste of time, money, and emotional energy

The American relationship to “exercise” has always struck me as counterproductive. It clearly has roots in our Puritan heritage, in which “no pain, no gain” breeds a vicious cycle of guilt and self-flagellation, then more guilt and more self-flagellation.

“I’ve been bad,” my friends say. “I haven’t been to the gym in a week.” We create a direct relationship between our personal worth and our time exercising. If we’ve been “good” at working out, we can call ourselves righteous and actually feel superior; we love ourselves (and our bodies) a little bit more. If we’ve been “bad,” we feel guilt—but a guilt that only has a superficial effect on changing our behavior (i.e., we don’t actually end up going to the gym more or feeling joy in our hearts when we do). And then we get trapped in this hellish, Spandex-y cycle. The problem with this legalistic approach to our bodies is that it doesn’t work.

Gyms haven’t made us any healthier. The United States has far more health clubs and gyms than any other country (although Brazil is gaining on us), and yet our nationwide obesity rate continues to rise with no sign of slowing down. (Six states last year saw their obesity rates increase, and no states saw their obesity rates decrease. Another interesting side note: Brazil’s obesity rate has also skyrocketed. The gyms aren’t working for them either.) Furthermore, gyms are generally a big waste of money: 67% of gym members don’t even go to the gym that they pay so much for.

(Diet, of course, is an enormous part of a holistic portrait of health, which I won’t address here. There are a million polemics and books about it from far more qualified sources, and you already know the Pollan dicta: Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much.)

So, here’s the rub: Americans love to strip pleasure out of everything. Eating? It’s a chore; let’s do it as fast as possible, preferably in our cars or in front of a TV. Let’s obsess over calories and carbohydrates and develop deeply unhealthy relationships to our bodies! Physical movement? It’s a moral obligation; let’s pay an absurd monthly fee to do it indoors, on machines, and judge each other and ourselves while we do it!

The whole concept of “doing exercise,” as if it were this one-hour cardio burst you have to check off your list and then you can laze around on the sofa for the next eight hours, is ludicrous. I lived with a young woman in college who lived on a diet of chicken breasts, literal platefuls of ketchup, and egg whites. She’d then go to the gym for an “intense workout,” in the hopes of earning herself a “free pass” for the rest of the week, but then she’d collapse at home on the sofa or on her bed, exhausted and malnourished.

This is nonsense, and, I think, a terrible way to live. (And I have thought this for years; see a post from 2014, meditating on my time in Japan and how Japanese women don’t get fat and don’t go to gyms.)

If you enjoy the gym, that’s fine; knock yourself out. I also like spending money on unnecessary things, like Korean skincare and handmade beeswax candles! We all have our thing; we’re American, after all. But we’re all so overworked and undernourished. And gyms aren’t helping us with these problems. Our American approach toward “exercise” creates a deeply messed-up attitude toward our bodies and the way we move them. It’s no wonder we’re so fat and so sad.

Learning from people who never go to the gym

Thanks to my doula, I now have a more unifying worldview in which to place these long-held convictions. She introduced me to Katy Bowman and Nutritious Movement. Bowman is a biomechanist who advocates, in a nutshell, for moving a lot more, in highly variable, natural ways, to break us out of our deeply sedentary modern lifestyles. (Watch this 5-minute video for a quick introduction to her philosophy.)

“Modern living does not require that we move, and to add insult to injury, it actually limits full use of our body. For example, a couch, although super comfortable, limits the full use of your ankles, knees, and hips. It sets the distance over which your legs and hip muscles can work. If you’re leaning against something right now, that something is doing the work your core muscles would be doing were that thing not there. We’ve effectively outsourced the use of our bodies to our stuff. And then when we ask our bodies to hold us up, and hold stuff in, they fail. Make no mistake, it’s not only the tissue that’s broken; it’s the habitat.” — Katy Bowman, Diastasis Recti

Before I had even heard about Bowman, I thought a lot about the locals we saw and lived next to in the Amalfi Coast this past May. We were worn out by the extremely terraced layout of the towns of Positano and Praiano, which are carved into cliffs. Furthermore, we were gobsmacked by the very old people who were climbing hundreds of stone steps a day with no assistance, no walkers, no human aides. (Praiano is perhaps the least wheelchair-accessible town I’ve ever seen.) They passed us easily on the steps, while we (many of the family in knee braces) had to pause often to catch our breaths.

Italy
A typical road in Praiano.

This discrepancy made sense, though, once we started watching the locals a little more closely. Almost everyone had a garden, and all throughout the day, senior citizens could be seen tending their little plots of land: their tomatoes and olive trees and rows of tidy vegetables. We also watched them walking back and forth from the little markets, carrying their bundles and baskets with aplomb. Old men and women spent time eating and drinking with friends on balconies, hanging their laundry up to dry, and fastidiously sweeping and cleaning their homes. They had lived their entire lives moving up and down these impossible and endless flights of stairs. Living there is hard work, and that’s the point. They’re all probably going to live to be 115.

“The Mediterranean lifestyle is walking with friends and family. Instead of thinking of exercise as something that you have to do, just walk or dance or move in joyful ways.” — Kelly Toups, nutrition director for Oldways, quoted here

Likewise, my time in Japan influenced me profoundly when thinking about lifestyle and movement. There are hardly any gyms in Japan. People eat well and walk everywhere. They take good care of their homes; they garden; they participate in neighborhood clean-up day with their children (photo below). And they also live forever.

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My neighborhood in Japan participating in clean-up day as a community (June 2008).

I remember feeling like I needed to “exercise” and go for runs in Japan (this, even though I was bicycling and walking miles to school and eating the best seafood of my life). My host mother Keiko was utterly baffled by this. “But, Abby-san,” she said, “why? I don’t understand. What are you running for?” She was worried about me. She looked at me like I was crazy. Indeed. What was I running for? Because that’s what college girls did; that’s what they were supposed to do so they wouldn’t hate themselves later. Thankfully, I grew up and out of this toxic attitude.

The healthiest people in the world—people like the elderly men and women in Praiano and my Japanese host family—don’t go to gyms.

Because who has time for the gym, really? No one does. Instead, movement should just be a part of our everyday lives, worked into every part of our day.

How I’m moving now

I share all of this with you with great joy, not at all with judgment! I am simply so happy to have discovered an approach to movement in life that is free of gym memberships and guilt and polyester tank tops with built-in bras. I just want to share the good news with you. So, here are some the happy ways that I am moving.

  • I’m walking as much as possible. We’re lucky that we can walk to work and to church, and so I have been walking every day for the past few weeks—even though it’s winter, even though I hate the cold, even though it gets dark so soon. I now walk at least 2 miles a day, and I’d like to work up to more than 5 miles a day (which I accomplish only on the weekends, when I take Pyrrha for longer jaunts around town). We use the car so much less now, and when I do, I park as far away as possible from my destination.
  • I’m sitting as little as possible. This is difficult, because I have a desk job, but I’m moving around a lot at work. I downloaded a Chrome extension that reminds me to get up and walk every hour, and I change my position a lot. I will sit in seiza on my chair; fold my legs in different positions; refuse to use the back of the chair and sit in straight alignment instead. When my boss or clients aren’t around, I will also sit on the floor in various positions with my laptop. I also realized that I don’t need to sit when I’m offered chairs. When I’m in a waiting room, I now stand awkwardly near a wall. It’s fun.
  • I’m resisting the inclination to sit when I get home. Now, I try not to sit down when I get home at the end of the day until dinner. While Guion cooks, I sweep; I tidy; I walk the dog; I read a book or write a letter standing up. If we watch TV, I sit now on the coffee table or floor or on an exercise ball.
  • I’m rejecting supportive shoes and heels. This one threw me for a loop. Birkenstocks and Dansko shoes are not helpful, and heels are absolute murder on your body’s alignment. Heels turn us into misaligned monkeys, and supportive shoes are big casts for our atrophied feet, which have been ruined by decades of walking on flat, manmade surfaces with cushy soles. The most minimal footwear possible (zero rise) is preferable to re-train and strengthen our feet. I’m also trying to walk on varied terrain as much as I can, which means walking in the grass or in the woods or on pebbles instead of on concrete or asphalt. Pyrrha also prefers this.

There’s a lot more that I can do, and I’m far from breaking myself out of a sedentary mold, but I feel energized by the progress I’ve made thus far. I’m excited about the weather warming up and returning to gardening, which is one of my favorite activities.

In sum, I feel very joyful about moving through life this way. It has been a pleasure to adopt these new practices, because it doesn’t feel like a chore. It’s honestly been easy and pleasant. Treadmills and yoga classes have always felt like absolute drudgery to me. I’ve always hated being in a room with other sweaty people, performing exercise. Now, I can just live and move and breathe, with a little more philosophical support behind this lifestyle I had already bought into without knowing it.

Further reading

 

Shyly venturing into yoga

Hood Ornament: 1948 (via Shorpy)

While recently enjoying a lovely weekend with my parents and sisters, I was struck again by my exclusion from the family way of fitness. My mom and sisters look like Athleta models. They are tall, toned, strong, and have impeccable posture. I am also tall, but I am weak and stiff. When I have joined them in yoga classes, I am the inflexible duckling, and they are perfect yoga swans. (Grace is particularly intimidating, as she is a licensed yoga instructor, and just about everyone looks like a toad next to her.) On Saturday morning, the three of them went to an intensive yoga class and cajoled me to join them, but I went with Dad and Dublin, the neighbor’s dog, to drop off stuff at the dump instead (because I will always choose dogs and dumps over fitness).

My sister the yoga instructor, practicing in Thailand. (c) Grace Farson.
My sister the yoga instructor, practicing in Thailand. (c) Grace Farson.

But I started thinking about yoga again. And feeling like I should try it, even though I am so intimidated and so weak. (I can’t even touch my toes, something I have always blamed on my extra-long legs, but which I now accept as a cop-out.) I asked my friend James, a yoga instructor in town, for advice, and he wrote such a forthright and gracious response that it nearly brought tears to my eyes.

Yoga appeals to me because it isn’t supposed to be aggressive or competitive — qualities which have always made me despise the American mentality toward exercise, weight loss, and gym culture. I am not trying to “get jacked,” lose 30 pounds, or strain my body to meet a cultural objective. Rather, I’d like to get to know my body better. To be strong. To be confident.

I have shyly started practicing yoga at home, and thanks to James’s advice, I have scouted some studios I’d like to visit for classes and instruction. I fully recognize that I’m at least 20 years late to the yoga bandwagon, but I hope it’s not too late for me on the whole, to gradually become flexible and strong.

Have you ventured into yoga? What have you found?

Exercise for the person who hates exercise

If I’m being honest with you, the most physical activity I get during a week is when I walk the dog.

Rivanna Trail hike
With Pyrrha by the Rivanna River.

Clearly, this is not sufficient, and I need to do more. I’d say that we eat quite healthy (meat only once a week, lots of vegetables and fruits, no desserts, no soft drinks) — although I’m sure we could eat less cheese, which is not really something I’m really willing to sacrifice, owing to the immeasurable joy that it brings to my life. That aside: I need to get moving.

I have a standing desk at work, which is already something in my favor, according to every fifth article you see these days. But aside from taking P-dog for strolls, that’s about it.

I’m also the athletic black sheep of my family. My dad plays hockey or some other strenuous sport almost daily. My mother has a six-pack and goes to these super-intense workout classes every other day. Kelsey (and her husband) are impeccable physical specimens; Kelsey is a champion hockey player and Alex is a titled martial arts master and surfer. Grace, as I mention below, is a certified yoga instructor and all-around badass. And Sam is also a champion hockey player and possessor of generally remarkable abs.

And then there’s me. The one who doesn’t even LIKE exercising, much less is trying to fit it into her life. So, personal assessment time.

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Hiking with Christa in some beautiful park, July 2009.

Favorite forms of exercise that I’ve tried:

  • Walking. I love walking; I really do. People laugh when I say that, but it’s such a pleasant, mind-clearing activity. I’m looking forward to walking to work soon and continuing to walk around the neighborhood and to the Downtown Mall. We’re lucky to live in a very walkable place. And having a dog as a walking companion is the best possible thing.
  • Hiking. The fittest I’ve been in my life is when I spent a summer living in Denver and went hiking multiple times a week. I actually had muscles! I hardly ever go hiking in Charlottesville (like, once a year), which is a real shame.
  • Ballet. I took two ballet classes this year and loved them, even though I’m a wretched dancer.
  • Cycling. I love biking around town, but I need to get a bike first. Goal for next year!

Things I’ve tried that don’t work for me:

  • Yoga. I really like the IDEA of doing yoga. It appeals to me so much: breathing and twisting your body around in a quiet room with a bunch of sexy women. But I am TERRIBLE at yoga. So terrible. Even though my little sister is a certified yoga instructor, I have a wildly different body type. Where she is muscular and compact, I am long and weak. My legs are disproportionately long, my arms are spindly, and I am the least flexible person I know. I’m always the person in the room who needs “special help” from the teacher. So I don’t practice yoga. Because it makes me feel bad about myself.
  • Swimming. Ever since my parents forced me to join the neighborhood swim team when I was young, I’ve despised the pool. My coaches told me that I had lovely strokes, but that I was just way too slow. Just the slowest. I hate smelling like a pool and I hate the notion of swimming laps.
  • Zumba. No. Just no. This is my personal hell.
  • Running. My father was a champion professional runner, and he likes to tell me that I was “built to run,” but I just cannot make myself do it. Again, I like the idea of being great at running, but I lack so much motivation. I think part of me is also reactionary to the prolific running culture in Charlottesville. Not participating makes me feel like a curmudgeonly rebel. (“You ran 10 miles this morning? Well, I sat on the couch and looked at my dog.”) Also, everyone I know who runs all the time is constantly in and out of physical therapy, which is not something I’m particularly interested in trying. I think I could make myself run in moderation in temperate weather.

I’m generally quite lazy, and so partner accountability and public shaming do wonders for me. Also being a part of a class. Having paid for a class (as with ballet) where I’m expected to show up each week and where my friends are counting on me (to at least give them rides) is helpful.

Based on this information, what do you think would help me? What is your weekly fitness regimen, and why does it work for you?

I still really want a dog

Kelsey and Alex are coming to spend the night before they dash off to Virginia Beach to run a half-marathon together. Cute. (One of the many differences in our approaches to dating… exercise did not equal romance to us.) Regardless, can’t wait to see my little Spartans!

Kelsey keeps talking about playing speed Scrabble with us tonight. I think this is because she knows she’s going to kill all of us in it. Even though I am generally known in the family as the resident wordsmith, Kelsey is generally known for being smarter than everyone–and she OWNS at word games. My dad does, too. The two of them compete like fiends over the weekly word jumble in the paper. Blood may have literally been shed over the last Boggle match. So, it’ll be an interesting night. For sure.

Back to the exercise comment. I feel very vindicated by this article: Why Going to the Gym Is a Waste of Money, Time, and Resources. They also cite that Time magazine article that came out a number of months ago, which says basically the same thing: that what we eat is way more important than what we do on the treadmill. Not that exercise isn’t important–it’s just not the cure-all for poor health and obesity. Something my wise mother has been telling us for years.

But my wise mother is also Superwoman, so it’s kind of unfair to be taking advice from her. She works out every day, eats tons of stuff from the earth, grows a killer garden, and teaches full-time. And she’s super HOT. Probably the most unfair thing in the world is when your 51-year-old mother is better looking than you are at 22. 22! This is supposed to be IT! Sigh. C’est la vie.

Still. I’ve been craving some physical activity lately. I’ve been paranoid ever since I read that article about people who sit for more than six hours a day (titled, cheerfully, “The Longer You Sit, the Earlier You Die”). Gah! I need to get a job wrangling wild horses or running a daycare for boys with ADHD or SOMETHING. I try to get up and walk around and stretch at my desk. The morning yoga has helped.

I should actually try running, though. It’s just… it’s still hard enough for me to get up at 6 a.m. every morning. Imagining getting up at 5 a.m. is another thing entirely. And it’s not like I’d be getting up to eat a bowl of blackberries and sip a cup of tea with a novel… I’d be getting up to RUN. No motivation there. This is why we need a dog. If we had a dog, Guion and Joy-Crushing Landlord*, we’d have to be active every day. I just want a sweet dog I can walk around Charlottesville. But that, unfortunately, is neither here nor there. For right now. (Also because the dogs I want are notably unsuited for semi-urban life.)

Also, this is great. I just died laughing when I read the caption. Maybe it’s not that funny, but it was to me today, chained to a desk in a taupe cubicle.

Monday Snax will be Tuesday Snax this week, because of that glorious, mourn-the-loss-of-the-summer holiday, Labor Day–or, as we now call it, Belmontonia Day. Maybe I’ll take some photos of our house’s annual hipster soiree?

See you then, chickies.

(*Our landlord is not actually a joy-crusher. He’s just being a responsible property owner. We think he’s a great landlord. Hi, Mike!)