I am something of an outsider to the world of physical exercise. It’s not that I don’t do it; but I have a particular perspective on it. I have very poor eyesight, that was undiagnosed until I was six, when it became apparent that I couldn’t see the blackboard at school. How this was missed, is one of the enigmas of my parenting. I’ve asked. They just assumed that because they could see, and everyone else in the family could see, I could see. The knock on effect of this was that was a relatively lardy and sedentary child. At the time this was apparently a bit of a mystery. I didn’t want to run. Nobody knew why. I imagine when my functional blindness came to light there was a bit of a eureka moment. ‘He doesn’t want to run, because he will run into things, Aha!’
By then my body had adapted to moving slowly, even on a clear day with good visibility; and I had very flat feet that had never really learned to run.
Most of my education happened at a large public school which whilst being highly academic, had a thing for team sports. Perhaps it created a necessary, alternative stream of attainment for the less-than-fantastically-bright members of the upper class; who blundered dimly amongst the common children that had had to pass tricky entrance exams. Be that as it may, practically speaking, it meant that I was forced, without glasses, out onto the sports field on a regular basis.
I couldn’t see so I couldn’t run, and I wasn’t a great runner anyway what with the flat feet and all, and damn I was fat. Get out on that field and it was all about running in one form or another. Running was the mainstay of the experience.
It was frequently raining or freezing cold. Sometimes it became dark.
I was always in the worst teams. The teams full of the asthmatic, the gimpy and the dyspraxic. We’d all tramp despondently out onto the playing fields and lollop up and down. One kid would routinely bring his entire cache of parker pens with him, and lay them on the touch line for safe keeping.
This was a pointless and, for someone as ruthlessly competitive as me, humiliating experience. Fortunately St Pauls had a swimming pool so sometimes I could escape into situations of greater physical equality. Swimming was less of a problem apart from being unable to navigate using features on the roof of the pool and crashing into the end at speed, doing back stroke.
The thing is I actually quite like to use my body. As a child my body, heavy and inefficient as it was, gave me great pleasure. Games of ‘it’, ‘british bulldogs’, ‘kick the can’. Running around throwing things at one another. In my teens I got heavily into cycling and then dancing for extended periods in the late eighties. Then my back and knees started causing me problems and the exercise forms I got into were the things that help you un-pick musculo-skeletal issues: yoga, chi kung, then tai chi, fledenkrais method and latterly other tai chi like stuff, bagua and xing yi.
Physical fitness culture; the gym; running; five-aside football; is something I regard with a, somewhat, jaundiced eye. Born of difficult, formative experience, and sullen loathing of team sports of all kinds, mainly from my not being very good at them, fertilized by a tricky relationship with groups and distrust of tribal affiliation and nationalism. I’ve matured into a someone who really just ‘doesn’t get it’ where physical fitness cultures’s concerned. Also I treat people who damage their bodies with sport, on a daily basis.
There’s an overarching theme to the material I put up on line and that is that as a consequence of information technology and it’s impact on the endocrine and nervous systems we are very, very very stressed. So much so that we are tending to become ill and quite unhappy. This is not unavoidable. The world has changed, so we need to recognise the nature of the change and alter what we do accordingly. Exercise or specifically needing to over exercise is a response to and reflection of high stress levels. Stress, both personal and collective, is the issue.
In a sedentary culture people undoubtedly need to do some physical exercise. It increases heart and lung capacity. Improves bone density, enhances blood flow, lowers cholesterol. Your body works well if it moves and poorly if doesn’t. It’s relaxing. It makes you buff and attractive. It gets you out of the house.
Mostly it doesn’t make you much, much healthier. Somewhat healthier, but not as healthy as people would like. And it does quite the opposite if you overdo it and push your body too hard or get tired and injure yourself.
Going to the gym apparently makes you feel good. It gets blood moving. It discharges the nervous system. In endocrine system terms, a burst of ‘cardio’ will flush your system through with a proper full healthy movement into the sympathetic nervous response; and out to parasympathetic the other side, on a wave of endorphins. Modern, sedentary, urban life is lived in a rumbling, chronic state of tension created by repeated, firing of the flight or fight sympathetic response. If you’re overwound from the constant engagement with the myriad, small provocations of a day of multi-tasking on screens: making banal choices about unimportant things; sexting someone; watching something on e-bay; answering work e-mails and dealing with a whole bunch of caffeine-fuelled, work politics; it will make it better. Even if we aren’t as individuals particularly stress-prone, then the people around us are, which practically comes to the same thing. Stress is a collective issue. Under such circumstances, going for a run will tend to feel like taking soothing drugs.
Aerobic exercise is, in some ways, an effective response. You’re using your body to relax your emotions. This will work; which is why it has been a growing feature of modern life; with big garish gym chains and lycra-clad people running inelegantly in parks.
The web of information technology in which we live, with frequent contact with screens and urban areas, which are intensely visually provocative; is overwhelming. Its is loud, bright and all pervasive. It desensitises, so it negates the subtle, small things of lived experience. The subtle small stuff is, sadly, the stuff that makes happy, good lives. This is important in physical activity. How you feel, how high your energy levels are, whether you are developing an injury pattern, where you are tense. If you aren’t in your body when you exercise, then you’re going to damage it.
There’s ‘baggage’ that gets attached to exercise. Needing to have control in an uncontrollable world. Issues of age, declining potency, fear of the descent into illness, that this culture views as, an apparently unavoidable, part of ageing and dying. There’s the puritan thing, punishing yourself: overeating and drinking and going to the gym as an experience of redemption. There’s a rising, and increasingly acknowledged, problem around body image; a kind of ‘gymorexia’, with people pushing too hard, and eating weird diets in the pursuit of impossible body ideals. The culture of physical fitness first appears in the seventies. It was driven by post-sixties individualism and is, in part, a response to visual technologies that were touching our lives more and more: television, cinema and advertising. We started to become the star of our own personal movie and we had to look our best. As the ‘self’ has become more important, we have to look after ourselves. We promote ourselves through physical appearance, with our first, most important and most critical customer being our own minds eye. Things can get very weird, when you spend too much time looking in the mirror. Worse when you look through a lens.
Naturally these two aspects, stress and baggage intertwine nicely with one another.
If you’re exercising with some agenda, some internal film you’re starring in, chasing some minds eye ideal about being the best, overcoming the odds….. Perhaps the whole thing is tinged with a dash of masochism and bloodymindedness. Maybe you’re whipped on by the fears recognised or unacknowledged: feeling fat and awful and fundamentally unloveable, hopelessly saggy and old, past the best of life unless…. . Add to that an unflinching belief that this, despite hurting more and more, is somehow redemptive and healthy. Stick on ‘chariots of fire’ or ‘eye of the tiger’ as a backing track and…..you’re going to injure yourself.
My personal favourite, epic fail is people running long distances in pursuit of health with a lycra band on one or both knees. I mean how do you think that happened? And in what way is running on concrete with injured knees going to help even slightly? I mean really. So the knee support looks all techie and cyber and makes your knee look, appealingly, a bit like a machine, at the end of the day it’s a bandage and you’re running with a bandaged knee. Getting a knee replacement in your late forties is crap.
What are you running towards and more importantly what are you running from?
Exercise is ok as a sticking plaster and definitely better than drugs and booze. That said there can be similar issues of disassociation, habituation and excess. It’s a more nuanced situation than the broad-brushstroke assumption that exercise = ‘health”=good.
The place that the technological world is hitting hardest is the mind or the endocrine/nervous system. Preventing provocation of the nervous system and engaging with calm and stillness is going to be the most effective response. Then you can hear your body. It’s then more possible to work within the fluctuations of daily capacity and know when you are tired and when you are good.
If you watch your body closely you can learn how to change alignment and fix glitches in your movement and engage with the way the four limbs and head connect with the internal organs and interrelate, with them. Things like better usage of the huge muscle–pump of the diaphragm and enhanced blood flow through improved posture become part of the equation. The potential physical downgrade from ageing or overwork is minimised or negated.
Much of this is the way a physically intelligent person will already operate. It can be a learned skill set, but you aren’t going to find that in a brightly lit gym on a running machine, watching a reality TV show. It’s found in yoga, qi gong, tai chi, alexander technique,feldenkrais, aikido and meditation.
Really healthy use of the body is based on good alignment of the spine, and the use of the limbs to create waves of movement in the internal organs; not cardiovascular fitness.
This is not a widely held or popular point of view, and amounts to something of a heresy amongst lycra clad gym bunnies. I know I don’t get the engagement some people have with sport. If I’m trying to light a camp fire with a bit of the Sunday paper, it’ll be the sports section. I didn’t watch the olympics at all, or wimbledon or any of it. International football brings me out in hives. Personal fitness regimes have always seemed so joyless, running on a treadmill, using a cross trainer, riding an exercise bike, when you could be out in the open air. Perhaps up on the downs or enjoying the adrenaline charged, rolling, near-death experience of riding through fume-heavy traffic on the picturesque Lewes road.
I love swimming. Swimming is a fantastic, sensual experience of moving your body whilst being supported in water. The culturally sanctioned medium in which to swim is an overcrowded, trench of chemicals, floating human fat, hair and god knows what else. It’s best enjoyed in a linear up and down format, not unlike a really deep sheep dip. If it doesn’t smell of chemicals in a swimming pool it smells of yeast and feet. Swimming should be really, really good, but swimming pools are truly horrible.
From the margins it’s obvious that many people exercise with some ideas about what their body will do rather than just being in their body. There are good reasons why this is happening and as with structures around ageing, this isn’t an individual issue, so much as something cultural. But if we identify it, then we can question and change. Co-worker Nik meditates and does enjoy a bit of sport, watched or participatory. He confirmed that running works best and is least tiring when you are just where you are. That you are where you are there and then, rather than looking forwards to reach another milestone down the track. Running mindfully is better.
But we used to be like that. When I played a game of ‘it’ as child I had no agenda apart from not being ‘it…… I was just where I was doing what I did. We were all like that and somewhere along the way we lost it.
Given the chance, apparently, we’ll do it again.
Or just mucking about in a park with a ball or a frisbee on a Sunday. Despite unpleasant formative experiences, grass-balls-mud-running-blindness, I get that. Or running for the sheer joy of it.
Being out on some wind blasted playing field chasing a ball I couldn’t see, it was easy to identify agendas, because they weren’t mine. They were imposed. It’s more difficult when things, like hyper competitiveness and needing measures of internal worth, say, come from deep inside you.
The healthiest thing to do with your body is to just be in it; to play. Playing isn’t about time. Playing has no future or past It’s about being there right now in the present and nothing else. Driven by the dictates of explosive levels of stress and ones own hyper-critical minds eye, it’s impossible to be present.
Bodies are really amazing things to be explored, enjoyed and played in. So much gets imposed on them, it’s a shame and it really doesn’t do them any good at all.
You’re not running towards anything or from anything, whatever you might think, imagine or believe. Actually you just are where you are, moment by moment.
It’s true of everything really, no matter what you’re told. Life is probably really just about enjoying yourself, mentally, physically, emotionally, whatever. And that’s it.