Stop Exercising, Doctor’s Orders!

This article was first published in The Huffington Post, on October 8, 2014.

I used to exercise. Following the advice of the pundits, I counted my miles, watched my calories burn in the small LCD display in front of me, and stared at the wall. It wasn’t fun. In fact, it felt like a chore. I wasn’t even sure it worked. Come to think of it, looking right and left around my gym, I saw clearly that it didn’t. Droves of people came and went, sweaty and exhausted; but it was short-lived, and few seemed inspired. To be fair, I imagine there is something about being in a gym, or in a studio, and watching people work hard to improve their condition. There is no question that others around you can be motivational. Still, there is something more that we can get out of movement.

The essential truth is that activity is important for health and wellness. “Exercise,” however, especially that which is confined indoors to machines, is not the type of activity that promotes the mind-body integration that in turn connects all the dots of our health. The late Joan Rivers told a joke about this: “I would exercise, except for the fact whenever I pass a jogger on the road, they look like they are in terrible pain. Who wants to do that?”

I agree. There is something better. When we move, we can have fun and feel motivated by our endorphin rush. Ideally, the activity itself will be productive, like painting your kitchen, playing tag with kids, or picking up trash alongside the road. These kinds of activities produce a sense of deep gratification, fulfillment, worth, and belonging that lasts far longer than the endorphin rush from exercise. All of the positive sensations in turn contribute to our overall health and wellness. And so, through connecting our movements with our lives, we achieve astate of genuine wholeness that is the sine qua non of health.

Maybe your kick-boxing class instructor believes in the benefits of exercise for the sake of exercise and tries to convince you to extend your gym membership for the typical reasons — lowering cholesterol, increasing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and so on. Certainly you are not alone. We’ve been sold on exercise since the first consumer treadmill was released in the late 1960s, less than 50 years ago. Here’s a question to consider: What were people doing before that?

Yes, cardiac disease was rampant, but then again, it still is. The advent of treadmills didn’t conquer the grim reaper. It just launched the obsessive, neurotic focus on fitness as a commercial enterprise. And, it is my experience, in speaking to thousands of people over the years, that what motivates them more than their fear of disease is the flab hanging over their belt. When the physical body is our sole or primary focus, everything from kickboxing to dance to yoga can end up becoming variants on the same theme. Somewhere along the way, for most, looking good has become the objective, instead of being well.

Clearly we need to remain active. If it is not a productive activity per se, it is still beneficial to engage our minds in something challenging and creative.Ultimately, we need to combine movement with the purpose of creating something useful, beyond ourselves, such as working with friends and neighbors to build a community garden. Without the link of these different aspects of our beings, we develop asymmetries, like a body builder who only works his flexor muscles. Not only is that approach dysfunctional, but it is often boring and quite possibly a waste of time. Certainly, it is a misinterpretation of the advice to stay active.

So stop exercising, and pick up a shovel to get your garden ready for next year. Hike with friends up the mountain. Dance by the seaside, and let the sound of the waves stir your heart. Soak up the clean, refreshing air, and deepen your appreciation for the gifts of the natural world. It’s what you want. It’s what you need. It helps you achieve a heightened state of wellness, in every aspect of your being.

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