By Andrew Bailey
Despite working in the department of Health and Human Performance, I’m not a devoted exerciser. That feels like a dark confession in a time where physical activity is at its lowest, with the Southeastern United States reporting the least leisure time physical activity of any region in the country (c.f. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/data/). I feel bad about it. I wish I liked to run more, or that I could get excited about an aerobics class the way my wife does. Each time I begin a workout with the expressed intent of exercising, I find myself counting down the minutes until I can be done. Yes, I feel good afterward, but that doesn’t take away the memory of the pain I endured to get there. That memory typically prevents me from returning, at least for a while.
I suspect that I’m not alone in my distaste for working out. There is very little in a packaged workout experience that inspires me, and the goal of extending my life a few years is pretty vague and abstract to serve as a motivator. I’m the guy that personal trainers hope they never encounter.
There are, however, active things I do enjoy. I love playing outdoors. I love taking my 5-year-old daughter on hikes and looking for treasures in the form of rocks, leaves, and twigs that will inevitably end up in my pockets and in the laundry. I love taking a new way to the coffee shop and seeing a new street, and I love exploring trails, rivers, mountains, and anything else I can wander into. Because of the joy I derive from these things, I rarely notice the physical activity required to do them. When the mountains call and serious effort is required to explore a more demanding project, the inspiration typically overpowers the dread of a grueling approach. I’ve come to realize that I’m not just lazy and out of shape. I’m overworked and under-inspired.
Positive psychologists tell us that focusing on a negative behavior only induces more negative behaviors (Seligman, 2011). Asking yourself why you are so unhappy only makes you more unhappy. I believe the same is true with physical and mental health. We need to quit asking why we don’t work out more as if more time on a treadmill will solve our problems. Instead, we need to consider how to put ourselves in the path of inspiration. What sounds fun and exciting to you? What would you enjoy doing even if you weren’t counting the calories or mandated minutes of moderate exercise?
It’s true that our bodies weren’t designed to be sedentary, nor are they built to remain in climate-controlled, concrete block spaces for 95% of our day (Mayer & Frantz, 2004). Our minds function at a higher state when our bodies are active (Medina, 2014). Our bodies are most alive when the senses are engaged. Most of our built environments (classrooms and office spaces) are designed for efficiency, not for optimal human performance. Natural environments have consistently been shown to be more conducive to physical activity, to restore mental capacities depleted by work, and to reduce anxiety (Taylor & Kuo, 2009). There is something inherently inspiring, restorative, and activating about the natural world.
I will submit the idea that I’m more outdoorsy than some. The research cited, though, was not conducted on outdoorsy people. It would appear that humans have an inherent connection to the natural environment, either through having evolved in it or through a preference for living things (e.g. Biophilia).
The next time you dread the idea of trudging through another forced march, consider a change of mentality. Instead of dutifully enduring 30 minutes of vigorous activity, explore a new trail, try out paddleboarding or choose from a host of other activities that you may enjoy enough to forget about your heart rate. Walk a new, maybe longer route to the coffee shop at work, and be sure to extend it through that park a few blocks down. If your work environment isn’t conducive to short jaunts, you might get the same benefits as a weekend warrior (c.f. http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/09/health/weekend-exercise-benefits/). Let your body do what it was designed for, and put your mind in a place that nurtures it. You may find that the recommendation of 150 minutes of physical activity each week is not nearly enough of what you enjoy.
Not sure how to get started? Check out these resources for places to play outside in your community:
Faber Taylor, A., & Kuo, F. E. (2009). Children With Attention Deficits Concentrate Better After Walk in the Park. Journal of Attention Disorders, 12(5), 402–409. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054708323000
Mayer, F. S., & Frantz, C. M. (2004). The connectedness to nature scale: A measure of individuals’ feeling in community with nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, 503–515.
Medina, J. (2014). Brain Rules (Updated and Expanded): 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press.
Seligman, M. E. . (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Free Press.
Andrew Bailey Contact
Andrew Bailey is an assistant professor of Health and Human Performance at UT Chattanooga. His teaching and research focus on tourism, outdoor education, and the human/nature relationship. A firm believer in the need for play, and for places to play in, he advocates for parks, green space, vacation time, and other assets that promote a high quality of life. When he manages to get out of the office, you might find him biking, hiking, paddling, climbing or traveling with his wife and 5-year-old girl.