In Praise of Participation, Blog 7

By Lance Tapley
The Anti-Fan Blogger

I was leaving a workout at the YMCA fitness center and ran into a man also on the way out whom I had seen on several occasions using the elliptical trainer. I knew he was a professor at a local college — a poet in his mid-sixties, bearded, friendly, but with a sad face.

“So are you getting somewhere with your workouts?” I asked — one of my, I hoped, anodyne conversation starters.

“Oh, I hate it,” he replied. “It’s painful. But I know it’s good for me.”

“Well, that’s mystifying to me,” I said. “How do we get you to look at it in a different way, to love it like I do?”

“I don’t think that can be done,” he said.

How depressing! While from the first run or bicycle ride a small percentage of the population sees — or feels — exercise as pleasure, it seems impossible for many to love it, even if they dutifully do it. And most people don’t do it. About 60 percent of the population gets no regular physical exercise and 40 percent none at all.

In my previous blogs, I’ve recognized this problem. In developing the Revolutionary Physical Education idea, I’ve made the provocative case that, given the enormous forces taking people into a sedentary life, the only way to get most people to exercise vigorously is to force them to do it.

And the only way to do that is to require them to exercise in school. To get and keep kids in shape and establish the habit of keeping fit, I have proposed 13 years of mandatory physical education made up of an hour or more of robust exercise five days a week.

In Blog No. 6 I discussed the costs and benefits of such a federally financed program — only at the federal level would there be the money and breadth of vision to undertake it. But before continuing with the political nuts and bolts, I need to take up a philosophical objection — the apparently innate negativity with which many people consider or experience exercise.

That negativity could be a drag on Revolutionary PE. If exercise isn’t fun, it will be harder to get kids fit, and they will be less likely to continue exercising throughout adulthood (though the research suggests that early exercise habits often continue into the adult years).

Every exercise expert recognizes the negativity. But in some recent, fine books promoting exercise, it seems to me the authors accept the negativity too readily as an unchangeable or difficult-to-change part of human nature:

New York Times fitness writer Gretchen Reynolds’s The First 20 Minutes notes: “Only you can decide . . . how much discomfort you wish to endure to become healthy and fit.” John Ratey’s Spark, which examines the connection between exercise and its many benefits to the brain and mind, quotes another expert: “Exercise in itself is not fun. It’s work.”

These books, of course, emphasize that exercise should and can be fun. And Times science writer Gina Kolata concludes her book Ultimate Fitness with the observation that the pleasure of exertion is the really durable motivation for exercise, outranking motivations like better health and longevity.

So where does the negativity come from? In an evolutionary perspective, if exercise is beneficial for our bodies and minds, as we now know it is not only anecdotally and historically, but also scientifically, then evolution must have connected it to pleasure.

And we now know this is true hormonally (see: Endorphins, Endocannabinoids, Dopamine, etc.) as well as psychologically (see: Appearance, Pride in; Power, Sense of; Stress, Relief of; Exhilaration, Sense of, etc.).

Getting fit is a way to be fit. The word fitness has several meanings, including (1) good physical condition and (2) the ability to survive and reproduce, or evolutionary fitness. Meaning number 1, of course, leads to meaning number 2.

But now, for many people, other activities trump getting physically fit, like being entertained on your couch by television or playing video games on your computer, buying things at the mall, working extra hours to buy things at the mall, and so on.

Such activities, I hypothesize, represent either an evolutionary-fitness status display that is an alternative to physical fitness — hey, look, I’ve got snazzy things, and I don’t need to run down an antelope on the savannah — or it’s an escape from the demands of demonstrating evolutionary fitness — the alternative world furnished by addictive entertainment.

Be that as it may, how can we turn the tables, beginning with young people, to have the joy of exercise trump those alternatives? To find out how, we must squarely confront the issue of negativity; that is, the issue of pain — what my poet acquaintance found to be dominating his workout experience.

For there’s no denying pain. At the moment, my arms hurt from yesterday’s strength training. And there’s nothing quite as agonizing as those last few all-out moments in a road race.

An answer to the pain-of-exercise question, an answer expressed or hinted at in the fitness books, is that individuals have to get past it to experience the beauty of a run through the woods; to enjoy the sociability of the team or the gym; to feel relief from stress; to feel the exhilaration of the body’s opiates and other pleasure-inducing chemicals, which require a certain strenuousness before they kick in; and, of course, to enjoy wallowing in that most primitive sin — pride in one’s body and its strength or skill.

What breaks the barrier, especially for kids? It’s called play.

The biologically evolved human (and animal) impulse to play is examined deeply in another book that deals a lot with exercise, Stuart Brown’s Play. Dr. Brown recognizes that “One of the hardest things to teach kids is how to make it past difficulty or perceived boredom to find the fun.”

A joyful state of mind more than an activity (since any game can be made grim), play has elemental value for humans including developing the brain; rehearsing for serious life needs; opening the imagination; socializing; teaching life skills; relaxing; and, very fundamentally, developing the body through exercise.

Play, like anything else, can become perverted — the addicted video gamer, for example. But then it really isn’t play. A fundamental quality of play, probably first recognized by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in his erudite 1938 book Homo Ludens, is that it must be “a free activity.”

That definition brings up a seeming contradiction. How could we institute free play in Revolutionary PE, an activity that will be mandatory in large doses?

Here’s how: the successful experiments with fitness-based (as opposed to sports-based) phys ed — such as the one in Naperville, Illinois, described in the book Game Changer, by Ken Reed and PE4life — show that, even within a mandatory environment, PE can be organized to make the most of freedom and, therefore, the quality of play.

Revolutionary PE should be:

1. Individualized. In Naperville, the student use of heart-rate monitors revolutionized the PE program. It allowed teachers to see whether a student was doing what was necessary to improve his or her physical condition, as opposed to doing something (like run a mile or not run a mile) that was inappropriately taxing the body or not taxing it enough.

2. Nontraditional. In Naperville, games with only a few kids on each side were instituted, such as three-on-three basketball and soccer, allowing for energetic play. This is just institutionalizing what kids improvise while playing in vacant lots or back streets all over the world. A nontraditional workout that may be appropriate to lead some kids to more vigorous activities is exergaming, such as with the popular Wii game.

3. Varied. Revolutionary PE could include, for example, hip-hop dancing, brisk outdoor hiking, cross-country skiing, indoor rowing, square dancing, relay races on the school track, swimming, three-on-three basketball, elliptical trainers, cranking machines, Wii, bicycle spinning (reader: please add to this list).

4. Gradual. All fitness programs, even for the enthusiastic, should gradually introduce the participant to increased levels of effort and the discomfort that comes with the effort that makes one stronger.

In an individualized, nontraditional, varied, graduated program, the student will not feel put upon. He or she will develop a positive attitude fueled by the sensation of progressive accomplishment — and will have an outlook energized by the physical and mental freedom that a fit body brings. As every athlete or fitness buff knows, the pain can be, paradoxically, significant but at the same time negligible and even welcome.

Lance Tapley is a guest blogger for League of Fans and a freelance writer based in Maine.


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