Every New Year, millions of people resolve to "get in shape." And, a few weeks into January—right about now—millions of people tire of their dreary new traditional exercise programs, and re-resolve to get in shape creatively. "I'll walk every night," they say. "I'll work in the garden, and take the stairs, and live an active lifestyle." I'm going to say something to all of those people now, and I want you to take this in the most constructive way possible, because I have the utmost respect for you and what you're trying to accomplish:
You are pathetic and delusional.
"I'm on my feet all day at work." "I ride my bike whenever I go to the store." "I'm in a bowling league, and a softball league, and a hipster kickball league." "I do tai chi." "I swim in the pool every summer." "I tighten my abs while I sit at my desk." "I get up and walk around the office every half hour." "I walk my dog." "I live on a fourth-floor walk-up." "Didja ever follow a toddler around all day? Now that's a workout!"
No. That is not a workout. None of that is a workout.
Again, I do want to commend you on your vague and wistful desire for "fitness," if not for your laughably wishful method of achieving it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with living an "active lifestyle." There is nothing wrong with walking, and biking, and swimming leisurely, and chasing frazzled children, and engaging in all manner of activities that feature basic human locomotion as one of their key components. Indeed—legs. Right? Why not use em? Right? Might be in a wheelchair tomorrow? Right? Why not stroll?
None of that is a motherfucking workout.
Let's just clarify here what it means to "get in shape," or to achieve some sort of "fitness." It means that your body has adapted positively to stress that you deliberately placed upon it. Your body is a maddening and marvelous machine which will change in response to what you make it do. If you make it do hard things, your body will get hardcore (basic Word Science of Fitness Biology 101). If you only do soft things, your body will be soft. If you carry huge Atlas Stones around in a purposeful manner, your muscles screaming and our lungs exploding and every nerve of your body begging for relief from the merciless gravity you are willingly inflicting upon it, your back will grow wide and your legs will grow stout and you will become an Incredible Hulke, able to fling small humans about in a manner befitting a Viking warrior. If the heaviest thing you carry is a fanny pack on your mall-walking expeditions to the Latte Shoppe, well, then, guess what, that's all that your body will grow: a fanny. A big soft fanny. Is that what you want? A big soft fanny?
You can do better.
Sure, working out can be boring. It can be mindless, and repetitive. Have you seen that Planet Fitness ad, where the big dumb goon says "I lift things up and put them down," over and over, like a big dumb goon? Ha, what a big dumb goon, right? What a mindless, repetitive, boring, lifestyle he has. He just lifts things up and puts them down. What an uncreative, inside-the box workout program he has, that big dumb goon. Just lifting, and putting down. Over and over again.
GUESS WHAT THAT'S WHY HE'S A FUCKING MONSTER.
Did you think that this fitness thing would be easy? Are you under the impression that millions of years of evolutionary biology governing the physical adaptation of the human body in response to stress can be tailored to your preferred hobbies? Have you ever wondered why there aren't a lot of Olympic athletes who train by walking around the block with Diane after supper? It's because that is not a workout. A workout is something hard that involves pain. Pain that you willingly lap, lap, lap up out of the pain bowl, and then, tearfully, as your muscles quiver and your calluses rip off and blood runs from beneath your fingernails, ask, "More, please?" (The preceding sentence may contain inspirational exaggeration.) That is what a workout is. Did you think that you would get to choose what a workout is? That you are the boss here? The boss of your body? The boss of fitness? You?
Breaking news, friend: you are not the boss. If truth be told, you are the exact opposite of the boss. You are the servant. You serve the needs of your body. You don't tell your body to be hardcore. Your body tells you what it needs in order to be hardcore. It needs workouts. Long, hard, painful workouts—for weeks, and months, and years. Purposeful, planned, powerful workouts, that are structured to place your body under the proper amounts of stress in order to achieve the desired adaptations. They're not structured to be fun. They're not structured to be relaxing. They're not structured to fit into Diane's after-dinner schedule because she needs to walk down to the store anyhow to pick up a pint of Breyers. You don't get to wildly inflate the bounds of what a "workout" is just because it's more convenient for you. Workouts are not to be reinvented. Workouts are to reinvent you.
No, you don't need to join a gym, or pay a personal trainer. But you do have to work out. You want to walk around the block with your kid, for your workout? Fine. You walk around the block wearing a weighted vest, carrying a backpack full of cement blocks, pushing a wheelbarrow holding your kid, who is holding another cement block. And then you do it again, and faster this time. This isn't a stroll. This isn't chit-chat time. This isn't supposed to be easy. This is a workout. If it's not work, it won't work.
This is an occasional column about fitness, and how you're doing it wrong. Image by Jim Cooke