I recently came across a couple of articles that underscore the trouble with our status quo bodycare mindset. The first is an article by noted software guru Linus Torvalds, explaining that he just doesn't like exercising. The second is a column in the New York Times from a doctor who has difficulties advising her patients about weight control when she herself has trouble maintaining a healthy weight.
Both articles seem to me to share a similar underlying complaint, asking, "Why is staying fit so hard? Give me an easy/enjoyable way to do it and I'll stick to it!"
Here's what I would say in response: Living healthfully is just like doing any other job you care about deeply. There are many enjoyable things about it, but there are also certain required things that need to be done regularly to keep the operation from going to pot.
This duty is what Jack LaLanne, the godfather of fitness, calls "taking care of your most precious possession." Sure, it takes effort he says, but "living is work, dying is easy." Even Mr. LaLanne hates working out, but, he says, "I like the results."
The message here is that engaging in exercise isn't necessarily something we should look to for entertainment or fulfillment per se. Rather, it's the downstream benefits that matter most — the increased fitness, strength, mobility, self-efficacy, improved body image and increased self-confidence, and even better mental acuity that results from regular exercise. Furthermore, exercise can help to minimize the impact of virually all of the major, chronic diseases that are widespread in modern society, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, thereby reducing the overall load on our healthcare system. These things are the real aims of all that work. Keeping fit is not a panacea, but the downstream benefits are well-established. So keep these things in mind while you're sweating!
The results-oriented attitude I advocate for better personal bodycare applies more to exercise than diet, since pleasure is a key component in eating. Eating habits are much more complex because food is essential for existence and involves more deeply-rooted brain circuitry related to needs vs. wants, emotional comfort, and other issues. For me, the key for healthy eating is diversity and balancing the good with the bad, and balancing caloric intake with expenditure (this is where exercise really helps).
It's important to recognize that eating well is a continual struggle for us folks in the developed world, with ample supplies of tempting, calorie-rich foods. You should allow occasional slips without self-abuse, and try to recognize when you are using food to deal with some other issue, or when forces around you are using food to manipulate you (as Dr. David Kessler describes well). Remember: you (assuming you're a non-incarcerated adult) have the ultimate, executive decision power over what goes into your mouth. Don't be afraid to exercise it!
Our society here in the U.S. tends to view exercising as something you choose do in your free time, as a form of non-essential, optional recreational activity. This is wrong-headed. It is best viewed as a necessary job that leads to extremely beneficial results in terms of physical well-being and as a proven preventative health measure.
To help us translate this bodycare reform into healthcare reform, I would like to see more incentives to increase our national level of physical fitness. At the rate we are going, the swelling ranks of people with poor health due to physical inactivity will have increasingly wide-ranging negative effects on society. Here are some ideas to help reverse this trend:
- fitness-based health insurance discounts,
- better access to fitness centers,
- better fitness education and information,
- tax breaks on health club memberships and equipment purchases,
- government-sponsored fitness events and competitions for the whole family,
- improved support for dwindling PE classes in public schools,
- [your idea here!].