Everyone reading this already knows exercise is good for you, yet most of us don’t exercise as much as we should. There are several factors influencing this: not enough time, not enough motivation, and not enough knowledge, both about how important it really is and about how to get the most out of it. My goal is to improve all of these deficits by the end of this article. In time, you’ll even look forward to exercise as an enjoyable part of your day, and that’s when the worst is behind you.
Look at what comes up when I just Google “exercise.” What is the common theme? Weights or running, shorts or yoga pants, it’s all about bodies in motion. No matter what formal definitions you might read, moving your body in a way that makes it work harder is exercise. “But James, that would mean going up stairs or carrying groceries is exercise…that can’t be right can it?” Those things absolutely are exercise! And before anything else we need to move away from the stigma of “I’m not really an exercise kind of person” and attaching the word to bottles of Gatorade, step counters and expensive shoes. Absolutely everyone has it in them to exercise, because our bodies are made to be in motion. We are not barnacles stuck to a rock,and our bodies will thank us for using them to their full potential. To do that, we should learn a bit about the parts of our body that help us move.
The above picture shows two of the main muscles that make your arm move, but the first body part we need to talk about is bones. Bones are like the wooden frameworks of houses you see when they’re half built; without them we would be a pile of mush. Believe it or not, healthy bones are actually about as strong as steel. That’s because they are composed primarily of calcium and phosphorous (metal and mineral respectively). If they make up the Earth’s crust they must be pretty sturdy! And yes, this is the part where I tell you to drink milk. Again. You’re not getting away from it. Not pictured are ligaments, but they hold all of our individual bones together so our skeleton keeps its shape and our joints are more sturdy. The other two body parts pictured above are muscles and tendons. Understanding their form and function is crucial to understanding exercise.
Muscles are the powerhouses of motion in our body – they are the parts spending energy to initiate motion. The way they do this is really pretty incredible. You know how our body is made of trillions of microscopic cells? Well, muscles are no different. See the stripes on the bicep in the picture? Much like shredded chicken in an enchilada, millions of muscle fibers come together to form a working bicep, and each one is a cell. There’s strength in numbers right? By working together, these millions of muscle cells can actually pull bones towards and away from each other like a horse pulling a carriage. How? Look at the tendon in the picture. Tendons are short, thick and very sturdy, and they anchor muscles to two or more bones. When the muscles make themselves shorter and fatter, the distance between the bones gets shorter, and you get motion. Try curling your bicep like the picture, and watch how it changes shape as your forearm moves up towards your shoulder. The same thing happens when you lower your arm back down, only now the tricep is doing the work.
So why don’t we get tired from simple things like getting up from a chair? Actually some people do, and that’s what we would like to avoid. Our bodies evolved to be very active back in a time when we needed to hunt animals and work the fields just to eat and survive. Because the human body is all about efficiency, it always adapts and learns how to do whatever it needs to do with as little energy as possible. So if we expect to take thousands of steps in a single day, then a few dozen shouldn’t really tire us out. Our life of abundance and accessibility has hurt us as much as it has helped us by making us forget how active and fit we used to be. It’s harder to exercise when we actually have a choice in the matter. There are two paths to fixing this motivation problem, and you’re going to get both because I like to be thorough.
The negative path involves getting up close and personal with the horrible diseases and life-threatening events that arise from a sedentary lifestyle. These include but are not limited to, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, kidney failure, and even dementia. The general progression to all of these things is the following: you need to eat to get all your nutrients, but you don’t use as much energy because your body isn’t moving. So your body stores the extra energy as fat to be used later, which clogs your arteries, makes your circulation terrible, and puts extra strain on your heart, lungs and muscles. You will eventually find yourself in the hospital far more often than you’d like, where you may lose your toes, get a tube stuck down your throat so you can breathe, get your blood filtered through a machine, and eventually just die.
“James that was really depressing; these articles are supposed to be fun!” I know and I’m sorry, but I would be doing you a disservice if I let you find these things out the hard way. I am determined to help you avoid any undue suffering and to make your lives better, and we will end this edition on a positive note. The good news is that exercise really can be fun, as long as you find something that you enjoy. Basketball, soccer, dancing, yoga, martial arts, bike rides, swimming, and countless more activities can help you build social networks, give you a taste of beautiful scenery and some fresh air, and build your self confidence. And if at the end of the day, exercise really is just a means to an end for you, then don’t worry I’ve still got you covered.
I get it. You work long hours, you come home, you’re exhausted, and the last thing you want to do is exercise. And maybe you can’t afford a gym membership or a fancy bike. But get over that initial hump and you will find that you actually have more energy and crave the happiness and peace of mind you feel from exercise. Here are a few things that you can do tonight, at home, with just twenty minutes of your time and a bit of floor space:
- Push-ups: the one and only. They are a household name because they are so incredibly good for you. Done properly they work your arms, chest, abs, back and heart. Keep your body totally straight and go all the way down, just before your chest hits the floor. Start with your knees on the ground if they’re too difficult and work your way up.
- Crunches: don’t overthink this one. Just make sure you drive with your abs without yanking on your neck. I personally like to cross my legs in the air and bring my elbows to my knees.
- Jumping Jacks: swing your hands above your head and jump slightly into a shoulder-width stance, then bring your feet together and hands to your sides like a soldier at attention. Your heart will be racing before you know it.
Sound more doable now? Of course it does! And there’s no shame in watching TV while you exercise, if that’s what it takes. Tune in next month when I tackle mental health, and remember, I believe in you!