John Medina PhD, author of Brain Rules, tells us that our bodies (including our brains) are built to live out in the great open plains, the savannah, and because of this, our bodies work best by moving, moving quite a lot more than most of us do move. In fact, he estimates that the very same body you are currently inhabiting is made to run and/or walk 12 to 20 kilometers per day… not per week, not per month, but per day. That’s a lot of exercise! Another current thinker is Tony Schwartz who has been writing and talking for over a decade about improving health and wellbeing in the work place. His first book about living well and working well was What Really Matters followed some years later by his excellent The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working which led him to found The Energy Project, a global consulting practice whose clarion call is to help people and companies find a better way of working.
Medina and Schwartz, each in their own way through separate lenses, synthesize some of the more recent studies about our bodies, what works and what doesn’t work. And in case you have lost track of time, we are about to be regaled yet again by articles, books, TV public service messages, all telling us “what’s new” in the research about that same old body. You’ll see, the barrage will start on January 2, 2015. And for me, your resident senior citizen, it will be the 60th time in my life I’ve experienced it… You may not know this but back in the day, there was a guy by the name of Jack Lalanne who was on (black and white) TV teaching us all how to do chin-ups, push-ups, and jumping jacks in the 50’s. So this year I thought I’d beat the rush. I also thought that since this is the season of parties, food and wine, shopping, late nights, corporate budgets, strategic planning, pressure to make year-end numbers, you might want to get ahead of the crowd too.
So here goes – the message couldn’t be simpler: Moving, somehow, every day, is good for every part of you. It is good for you the thinker, you the worker, you the mother, father, daughter, son, man or woman; it is good for your dog if you have one, it is good for seeing things you wouldn’t otherwise see, for feeling things you wouldn’t otherwise feel for making friends, having great alone time, for thinking, for not thinking, creating imagining, dreaming. It is just good.
Of course, as I suspect you’ve noticed, we don’t live on the savannah any more, we aren’t hunters, wandering herders, or farmers. We are modern people, well, at least in our minds, because what we experience, generally, is a modern world, very densely populated spaces, filled with six thousand or more years of labor saving technology. In short, we don’t need to move much, certainly not 12 to 20 kilometers. Unfortunately, this thinking, this construct in our minds doesn’t jibe with our physiological brains though. You see, our brains haven’t changed that much in twenty thousand years. Our brains, along with our bodies, are still made much the same, because the brain too, along with our bodies, is a savannah survival machine.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking: I’ve heard all of this before. But before you log off, let me tell you a short story.
Thirty-three year ago, one winter morning, I was being escorted through what was then Seattle’s newest and hippest Sports Club. It was built to lure young and middle aged hipsters, feeding off of the new(ish) physical fitness craze: that mania of the late 1960’s, early 1970’s that coaxed lots of investment money into work-out emporia like (trumpets sound and a deep press box announcers voice speaks) “The Seattle Club”.
I was impressed, overweight, truly middle aged and reasonably flush at the time. So after the tour by a spandex clad sales executive named Janet, I said “What the hell” and joined, paid a ridiculous “Membership Entitlement Fee” and received a royal blue card with gilt edging that entitled me passage through the front desk of this haven of fitness into the inner sanctum where I could work out as often as I wanted… several times a day if I so chose.
Several days later, after shaking off a flu of procrastination, I made my first appearance at the club, puffed with vague intentions of lifting weights and perhaps run on one of the army of treadmills arrayed across the Cardio Studio floor. It was 6AM, and yet another dark rainy Seattle winter morning. Inside the club however, it was bright, warm, not raining, and I approached the weights area, mirrored of course, anticipating my first work out, mentally pumping myself up. Off in the distance I heard loud music, rock and roll actually, some shouting, laughing, and foot thumping. Looking over into a large adjacent space I saw an aerobics class in action. There were only about ten people spread across a very large gym floor, but the music was loud, rhythmic, and wow, were they having fun.
Later, after half-hearted weight lifting and a fifteen minute treadmill slog, one of the guys from the aerobics class, a business colleague, came over smiling sheepishly, drenched in sweat, and said “Man, that Mary O, what a woman! What a class!” Now, for most of us lesser mortals, lifting weights alone might be manly, or womanly, but more likely the experience is one of doing a physically uncomfortable boring chore. Running on a treadmill is worse. Really, what is the experience of running on a gym treadmill? (Think rodent on a wheel.) It is running in the same damn place, looking at a wall, or monitor with CNN, a poster, or (worse), looking at someone else running on a treadmill looking at…. My reaction was “Ugh, what have I done? Let’s see: I spent thousands of dollars, committed to forever of monthly payments, and a lifetime of boring and miserable workouts! Yikes!”
And so it was, full of dread and desperation, I tried something unlikely…to do the unmanly thing. I decided to give that aerobics class, that dancing and jumping thing a try.
Enter the redoubtable Mary O, the leader of our class, lithe, spry, strong, the body fat of a pencil, and as I was to find out, a virtual human dynamo. She was energy incarnate. She was funny, saucy, edgy, and she knew how to make us work hard, really hard, and yet somehow enjoy the experience. The combination of energy, fun, music, and personality gave her what you might call aerobic charisma. And that made for converts, lots of them, me included. In less than a month her class was attracting standing (jumping) room only crowds: 45 – 50 people covered every square foot of gym floor. And we did rock!
Since then, I have amassed a huge bank of memories of moving, most mornings now, usually running: through London’s Hyde Park around the statue of Peter Pan, or beneath the Eiffel Tower and along the river Seine, or through St. Mark’s square in Venice, or up a trail above Lake Annecy in the French Alps running on a path of red and orange leaves during the fall, or through the high desert of Sedona Arizona. There have been literally thousands of runs, and hundreds of trails, cities, and continents.
Medina and Schwartz have lots more to say about physical wellbeing and you would learn a lot by reading what they have to say. But the gold standard for me was watching Mary O walk to the center stage under the glare of gym lights, smile her “You’re going to love this!” smile, raise one hand in the air and shout “Well alright! Let’s get going!” And with a flip of a switch, Flash Dance boomed, or Tina Turner growled, and we would launch our bodies, all of us at once. “Start your day by moving, ” she would call out, pumping both fists in the air, and we did.
Find a way to move for yourself too: move your body, whether you walk, dance, bicycle, skip, just move, every day. It makes all the difference in the world.