The Best Exercise in the World is…

What? You really think I’ll start the article with the answer? That’s not a very good strategy for writing. It would be the physiological equivalent of a traditional ‘Whodunnit’ when the butler pounces from the pantry and says, ‘It was me!’. You’d not be inclined to watch the rest, would you? A Scooby-Doo cartoon with old man Rivers throwing himself in front of the Mystery Machine with a sandwich board declaring his guilt. That’d be a grim cartoon; I’d probably watch it. Damn hippy teenagers and a metaphor for exuberant LSD use. You can’t disagree, Scooby-Doo is so 60’s you can practically get high just watching it. ‘Zowie’, ‘yoinks’ and whatnot.

And don’t jump to the end of the post either. You’ll not find it there. I’m going to bury it in some inexplicable paragraph. Make it so fleeting you’ll be genuinely disappointed at the mediocrity of the answer. But hopefully the journey to the truth will at least offer some entertainment.

Exercise sucks. I’ve said this before. You probably question why I work in the industry I appear to loathe. I do too. But I’m here, so let’s get on with it. Exercise is a thing best described as the means to an end. Unfortunately, for most, that end never arrives. You perish on the path of exercise fulfilment; dashed upon the rocks of rowing tedium or terminated by cycling catatonia. Exercise is boring. Consider the things in life that make you laugh and smile. A child who’s dropped their ice-cream, a cat with a lamp-shade collar stuck in a fence, a politician stuck on a zip-wire waving a union jack. That last one actually happened. Funny stuff.

Activities which are fun have one common theme—an instant reward. We eat ice-cream and chocolate cake because the taste tickles our pleasure centres. Foods with a 50/50 mix of fats and sugar send most humans into delirium (ice-cream being one such thing, accompanied by cheesecake, etc). Games that we play, competitive or otherwise, are intrinsically rewarding due to baked in evolutionary survival tactics. Physical games that require actual cardiovascular effort help to tune our bodies and increase our fitness. Technically, that in itself is a reward but more than that, the human interaction of game-play enhances social skills and, to a degree, social belonging. A game becomes fun not because of the effort involved but for the other rewards it delivers.

This is why exercise fails at being fun for most people. Granted, there are those who enjoy the repetitive nature of solitary exercise. Science would be diplomatic and say something nice. But I’m not a scientist. I am, however, a cynic, and that empowers me to be blunt. Finding pleasure in the individual pursuit of fitness is, in itself, bonkers. That’s right—bonkers. From a biological perspective, it is sheer nuttery to enjoy battering one’s body into submission. Take the marathon runner. Of note, I have nothing against those who choose to run 26 miles. Remember, this post is pure cynicism and tongue-in-cheek wickedness. You run marathons? I don’t care—either way. Running marathons is a first world excess. It used to mean something; namely, a message that the Persians were coming. Now it’s all about specialist footwear or people dressed as dinosaurs collapsing with heat exhaustion.

A marathon reduces most to rubble. You see the victims cross the line on legs not fit for purpose. Wobbly pins I’d not trust in a bowling alley. Imagine that endurance sapping feat. Take a bow, have a round of applause. Now, try running away from that bloody lion I just freed from the zoo. What’s that? Your legs are a little bit useless? Quick, here comes Tiddles, and she’s not fussed that you’re wrapped in shiny foil. To her, you’re a human Tunnock’s Tea Cake. Nom, nom, nom.

A Tunnocks Tea Cake -A very Scottish cake/biscuit thing

I’ve not lost my mind. My point is, a marathon renders the human specimen weak and vulnerable. And for what reward? One week of DOMS? A buggered back and extensive physiotherapy fees? You can see it now, can’t you? I’m right. A marathon is not fun. It’s downright dangerous. Consider also that they often occur in metropolitan cities and most of these do in fact have zoos… I’m savvy that way. Won’t catch me doing a marathon. But then, I also use a leg brace. That would likely confuse the poor lion; under my foil wrapper I’ve got proper metal parts. Nom, nom, broken incisor.

I’ve established why exercise isn’t fun. And it’s precisely why most fail to adhere to it. So, what does work? The penny should have dropped by now; you should see where I’m going with this. If you can’t, you ought to go read another blog. One about those hollow mannequins called celebrities or conspiracy theories suggesting Ireland is actually a prehistoric, fossilised Koala. It so is by the way.

Now you’ll never see it any other way – The celtic mega-Koala

If we remove the curveball of mentalists who enjoy solitary exercise, there is one stand out activity that is sure to work. Or, to better phrase it: one condition of said exercise. It has to be enjoyable. Fun is the absolute key to maintaining an ‘exercise’ habit. Performing a physical chore that gives no ‘instant’ reward is a very disappointing endeavour to undertake. Fun creates a reward for the activity and replaces the apparent lack of feedback that our biology requires. Group fitness is often the key to exercise longevity. Participating in a communal class with an energetic and motivating coach can make all the difference. Of course, there are downsides. Cliques, body-image issues and an onslaught of mirrors that allow you to see every angle of your unsavoury backend can be a spoiler for some. But, by and large, GFX (as we abbreviate ‘group fitness’ to appear cool and trendy) is a winner for many.

But what if I hate people? Don’t worry, friend, I’m with you. Let’s celebrate hostility to humanity by drinking—just not together. If you prefer solitary exercise, you’re SOL* for standard narratives for fun. That leaves a huge array of personal activity. Outdoor cycling (I suppose it’s called…cycling) will get you into nature. Or under a bus. Rock-climbing or the inferior pursuit of finding a rock-wall to climb upon (called ‘hillwalking’) are excellent for raising mood and self-regard. Walking amongst nature—a good old trek through forest and glade—can lift both spirit and heart-rate. Just be vigilant for mammals with sharp teeth and claws if you’re lucky enough to live on a continent with dangerous indigenous fauna.

If you must insist on doing gym-work, you know, stuck in an iron cavern of clanking machinery where nuisance-mongers wear colourful battle Lycra and unnecessarily insist on clapping chalk into the air, there are some key elements to note. First, and most important, understand why you’re there. The gym will one day reward you. But first it must humiliate you and poke fun at your body. If you can scramble past the initial indignity of it all, the prize will come. Set your goal: weight loss, muscle gain, do a single chin-up, run a mile, yadda, yadda, yadda. Goals are important. Grab one and note it down. Stick it on your fridge. Glare at it with prejudice on a Sunday morning. But know it. Feel thy goal.

Second, rip out the nonsense. Talk to a gym coach and ask how you can most quickly and effectively achieve your goal. If the coach is overly muscled or shredded like pulled-pork, walk away. Fitness enthusiasts don’t understand that exercise sucks. They imagine you’ll love puking up after your 50th burpee. Find the coach with the grumpiest scowl; they know the truth, it’s why they’re so unhappy. Yes, I’m talking about me. I am the truth.

Grumpy coach will tell you how to make your work-out ‘most bearable’. Not fun. Most bearable. If you can find that coach, you’re set—they will nurture your attitude and make you the gym equivalent of a cockroach. That’s a good thing. You’ll persist through thick and thin (literally) and people won’t bother you. When Cindy Squat has long since vanished after her Instagram friends abandoned her over that ‘fat-shaming’ post, you’ll still be doing your 30-minute efficiency work-out. People will nod in your general direction. You’ll hear whispers of legend. Grumpy coach’s no-nonsense routine is still working. Why? Because you told them what you didn’t like and they listened. They allowed you a modicum of ‘fun’. And that’s the key to success. Whatever you do—you have to find the fun, sometimes in the smallest things. Print a tee-shirt with ‘I’m Grumpy Because I’m Here’ on the front and laugh quietly at the enthusiasts. They won’t understand but they’re abnormal. You can hold your head high and almost enjoy yourself. You conquered the gym your way. Now who’s laughing?

SOL* – Google it. If you find a sweary word, that’s it.

I didn’t get fatter; the world got easier

I was born in 1974. I remember having to walk to the television to change channels. Thankfully, someone invented the remote control. It served to protect the carpet from unnecessary wear. People shouldn’t scuff flooring with trivial jaunts to the TV screen. Come to think of it, I remember three channels, before Channel 4 was launched. Those were dark days. Grim days, some might say. Long before Channel 5 brought us the awfulness of low IQ TV planning. This is the UK, by the way. If you’re not from here, you’re lucky, you may have missed our entertainment drought. It was brutal. Now we have channels for everything. We went from not enough to ‘please, no more.’

And that’s just TV automation—the remote control. I knew cars before power-steering was a commonplace thing. Nowadays, you can waste rubber by turning the wheel in a stationary car. Glides like a pony on ice; namely, without friction but at great cost to the tyre. Picture the pony, poor sod. A bad thing. But in the old days, before servo-assisted wizardry was implemented, good luck trying to turn the wheel in a stationary car. That was a work out. Even in motion, a manually yanked steering wheel was a wrestle. No gentle fingers on the rim, one hand on a thermos, the other steering with an effete pinkie. No, it was as though taming a malevolent python on speed. A thick, PVC-encased wheel (leather, if you were rich) that was determined to end your life. A car without power-steering was hell, at least, that ‘s how I recall it to be.

Before the internet, there was a period known as the dark ages. This was when truth was found in books. A time in life when to learn something new, you had to walk to a place they called a library, and speak with a strange creature known as the librarian. Usually half-woman, half-ghost, these ethereal beasts would stamp the sign of the book-demon into the jacket and send you on your way. Often, they would say, ‘Bring it back in two weeks, or your soul is mine.’ At least, I think they said that. Point being, if I needed to know how to plumb a cistern, my phone couldn’t help. Because back then… there were no phones. Well, they had phones, just not proper ones as we have today. Old phones were designed by the ancestors of exercise manufacturers. Digit Gyms, they were. Bleak memories: trying not to break a finger as you toiled and spun a wheel around a dial. It took about a thousand turns to contact anyone. Plus, the phone weighed as much as an encyclopaedia. Tough, manual work just to phone a friend. Just to say, you could fix their loo.

Right now, I’m using a mechanical keyboard, crumbs and dust littered under the caps. I remember using an actual mechanical typewriter. Only briefly mind, before I bought a word-processor for Uni work. Those old devices required TLC and patience. The keys themselves were more akin to lever-gyms. One mighty push was required to launch a letter embossed on a small iron block into a wall of paper. It was a satisfying sound, a pleasant sensation. But again, just as everything else back then, it took more effort than what is required from us today.

And that is the point of this random carnival of 80’s memorabilia. Let’s take the television remote as an example. To change channels required you to stand up from your chair, or sofa, or perhaps even roll out of bed. To stand from sitting is basically a squat. That right there is what annoying gym folks call exercise. Yup, exercise, a bad word to some. One half-rep of one bodyweight squat. Whoop! Now you pace one step or two, maybe five if you’re wealthy and have a large house. But then, if you’re rich, you might ask the butler to change channels. Imagine, a biomechanical human remote control. A sort of cybernetic stone age. I digress. So, you’ve dragged your ass to the TV, pressed the buttons. Now what? You reverse that motion. That means a controlled descent onto the cushion where your bum-print is still visible. That’s what we gym commandants call the ‘eccentric’ phase of the squat. Pre-remote (or sans butler), channel surfing required one squat. Change channels 10 times a day, 365 days a year—count it—that’s 3650 squats. Think about it. That’s over 70 sets of 50 squats. Make that a 3-set portion per day and that’s 23 squat sessions per year. You see where this is going?

But that’s nothing. Walking is the big game-changer. In the nineties, I walked to work. 30 mins there, 30 back. One hour. Five days per week. In calorie terms, that’s 250 kcal/day. Add a 48-week year, and we’ve got 60,000 kcals/year. Or 16 pounds of fat. Now, imagine driving to work. No more walkies for Mr Fit. Time is precious, so we decide to sit on our bums for twenty more minutes and drive instead. In one year, you’ll pile on one stone of weight, all things considered. And that’s just the walk to and from work. Cars are ubiquitous these days, it’s normal to own one. And when you do, you drive it—everywhere. Why else own one tonne of shiny steel? Personally, I view the car as a mini-karaoke bar on wheels, without the booze, of course… officer.

What am I saying? Clearly, the correlation is between driving and getting fat. It’s called a spare tyre for a reason. The diminished reliance on walking is fundamentally linked to our downfall in the battle against weight gain. Those gym fiends (yes fiends, as in monsters, not friends) will tell you to train your way to a better shape. But it’s not true. Why? Because what you’ll do is drive to the gym, return home, and sit on your backside, making the erroneous assumption 45 mins of gym twice a week will work. Nope. It doesn’t. I’ve seen it so many times.

We used to be slaves to a domain of manual effort. But technology came along and saved us. Emancipated from the hellish shackles of ‘a smidgeon of effort’, we embraced the late 20th century ideal of ‘everything at your fingertips’. If I think back, I recall accompanying my mother to do the grocery/food shop. She had one of those weird, ’granny’ bags—a tartan-esque suitcase on wheels. But that was replaced, eventually, by the mini-karaoke bar on wheels, and now, in the days of automated Armageddon, you can arrange for unseen hands in a warehouse to pack your weekly shop and even get someone to deliver it to your doorstep in a diesel belching van. Wait—you have the gall to complain your plums are bruised? Really?

The reduction of manual labour, the reliance on automation, the lure of convenience: all of these things have conspired to make life too easy. We’re told by slick marketing to over-consume (I know I do). But in reality, food doesn’t make you fat; energy imbalance does. And in a world of zero effort, where I don’t even have to touch my phone to get it to answer me, our odds aren’t great in the war against apathy. There is, of course, an easy answer. Get up, go for a walk. Lots of walks. Forrest Gump your life away. Give it a shot, just as soon as you’ve ordered your pizza through Alexa.