I’m writing this in response to a question I was posed on Twitter recently by my friend, Michael Taylor. It’s about the nobility of exercise and whether we need a to exercise in pursuit of a goal.
Michael had written a post on his excellent blog, The Marple Leaf, about his health and fitness. In the post he referenced the actor Simon Pegg’s weight loss in preparation for a role. Simon had dropped a lot weight (19lbs according to reports) and now appears really lean – the kind of condition that takes an extreme level of dedication and sacrifice beyond ‘going to the gym’. Take a look…
Michael’s question was what should he (as in himself, not Simon Pegg) be doing next? It lead to a little back and forth about fitness goals etc, which is something I’ve thought a lot about over the years.
I’ll start by saying I think goal setting is something that can be extremely helpful for a lot of people, but its importance in general is overstated.
In my opinion, you don’t need to have a goal. Your time and effort isn’t wasted if it’s not in pursuit of some pre-determined goal of physical or performance-based outcome.
I’d say for 99% of the time, I fit into this category. With exceptions of training for an event, I’ve never really had a fitness goal, just a vague idea of where I’d like to take my fitness, be it making me stronger, improving my cardiovascular output, more flexible etc. Even then I rarely attach a figure to the goals.
I don’t need a goal to exercise. Being healthy is the goal.
I believe in a certain nobility of exercise. Why can’t the goal be to be healthy? It’s an intangible goal, the pursuit of health, but it’s a noble one. I want to be healthy. I want a body that works well and does what it needs to. A body that stays absent of illness and injury. A body that allows me to enjoy my life with a certain standard of fitness and a freedom to do things I enjoy.
Freedom? Isn’t that a little over-exaggerating the effect a lack of fitness can have?
Absolutely not. It’s a freedom afforded to me by the absence of my body being the limiting factor. I know plenty of people who have said “I’d love to do (whatever challenge) but I’m just not fit enough”. I would need two hands to count the amount of people who have said that to me about Tough Mudder alone!
A fit and healthy body does afford you freedom. A freedom to do things that require a level of fitness.
I want to be able to play with my kids – run around playing football, take them on bike rides and go for family walks without feeling exhausted afterwards. I want to climb trees with them, play in the park with them. I want my kids to know me as Dad who plays with them however they want to play.
Then there’s a side of me that wants to maintain a level of physical performance for a while….
I want to be able to snatch and clean and jerk a respectable weight. I want to be able to ride my bike 100 miles without needing 6 months recovery afterwards. I want to take in occasional climbs up Snowdon and play a couple of games of 6 a side every week. I want to take part in obstacle course races and live an active life.
It’s important to me that I live without the aches and pains that many of peers suffer. I’m trying to avoid the chest pains, the bad backs and the joint aches that are all too common amongst people in my demographic.
I’m at an age where my friends are starting to feel the onset of age. A very good friend of mine was told recently he was pre-diabetic. This is a lad who was skinny in school. Not just thin, I’m talking skinny. Now he’s being told he has to lose weight because he’s at risk of type 2 diabetes. He’s 36. Even 10 years ago he was very slim. Examples of that are my canary down the coal mine.
Finally, I’d be wrong if I didn’t say there was an element of vanity to my exercise, but I promise you it’s the last on the list.
I’m not a bodybuilder. If I was I’d be far more restrictive with my food choices. An active life affords me a little more gastronomic freedom. That, plus the idea of weighing out portions of food and giving a toss about my ‘macro’s’ leaves me cold.
The ability to live a healthy, active and productive life are far more important to me than walking around with sub 10% body fat, especially when I live in a country where we’ve flooded twice in three years… IN THE SUMMER. We hardly lead a beach lifestyle here in the North West of England.
The vanity comes from the fact that I have a level of self respect that just won’t allow me to pile on a load of fat over the years.
Almost without exception, if you see a picture of a man in his 30’s/40’s/50’s when he was in his twenties, he’s slimmer. Skinny even. It honestly baffles me when I see men who are 5+ stone (70lbs) heavier than they were in their twenties. That’s not an insignificant amount of weight gain – to put on so much weight you’ve consistently made questionable choices over a prolonged period of time.
I feel like I owe it to my partner and my kids to not be like that. If my enjoyment of food ranked higher in my list of priorities than actively playing with my kids and being fit and healthy, then it’s a sad state of affairs..
Is it time to look at exercise differently?
It’s interesting to me that in many cases exercise has been reduced to such a basic level. There’s a lot of people who view exercise through a vanity lens, thinking that its only purpose in life is to make somebody look better – leaner, more muscular. Some people only go to the gym or take up exercise when they feel fat, not when they feel unhealthy. There’s a difference.
The sad reality is that the default setting for the middle aged and older man now is overweight. I don’t want to be like that. Why would anybody want to be like that? It’s like we just give up on life, allowing ourselves to pile on weight and accepting that the onset of time comes with a spare tyre and lethargy.
I want to be healthy. The alternative sounds as appealing as a hair covered sweet.
Can’t We Just Enjoy Exercise?
But then there’s another question to ask…What about enjoyment? Can’t we exercise because it makes us feel better, irrespective of how we look? I feel better when I exercise. I feel terrible when I don’t. Physically, mentally, emotionally, professionally, the fitter me is a better me.
To some people the thought of working hard and exhausting yourself in pursuit of feeling good is a bizarre concept, but then anyone who has suffered a hangover will understand that occasionally there’s a downside to euphoria! Feeling rough is the tax you pay for enjoyment every now and then.
Thankfully, exercise is part of my identity. It’s how I earn my living. It’s what I enjoy doing. A couple of my hobbies (football and weightlifting) are fitness related, which helps.
Why do you lift weights? Do you want to be a bodybuilder?
Does every bloke playing 5 aside think he’s going to play for England? Is every person on a bike attempting to win the Tour de France? Not quite. Not everybody who exercises is a meathead, nor are they doing it to be a bodybuilder. Not every woman in an exercise class is trying to be a size 6. Some people have motivations beyond the aesthetic.
What is the fundamental purpose of exercise?
Exercise is the practice of improving health and fitness, therefore quality of life through regular and consistent physical and mental challenge. It’ll mean different things to different people, but please don’t reduce exercise to such a basic level as to think it’s about how you look.
It’s not just about vanity, about looking a certain way. A ‘good’ body is a by-product of a healthy lifestyle. Think healthy and the rest will follow.
In a world where pressure on health services is at an all-time high, maybe the acceptance that we owe it to ourselves to look after our bodies should be more prevalent. We can’t prevent all ailments, but we can certainly give ourselves a fighting chance by making exercise the cornerstone of our lives.
Try it. You might like it.
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