Last week, I discussed how our genetic predisposition favors eating too much and exercising too little. This was a formula for survival when food was scarce.
Today our abundance of food, combined with our inherited tendencies, has resulted in an epidemic of obesity that contributes to many life-threatening chronic diseases.
Ironically, although we are programmed to avoid exercise, it can be our savior if we can break through our natural resistance.
Exercise is a choice
Exercise is a choice that too few of us make. There are lots of reasons for this.
First and foremost, doing nothing feels natural, while exercise feels foreign.
What’s more, our bodies make sure exercise feels horrible at first to discourage us. We lose our breath, our muscles ache, and the next day we are sore from head to toe. This is consistent with our genetic tendencies.
Our society also helps program us to be sedentary. We are very busy with precious little leisure time, and when we do find some, we do what comes naturally. We rest.
We make exercise inconvenient and even dangerous. Many neighborhoods have no sidewalks, and bike paths are rare.
Going to the gym takes a considerable time commitment, plus expense, and in-home exercise on a machine is about as boring as watching paint dry.
All in all, it’s easy to see why only a small portion of our society exercises regularly.
Why do we exercise?
So why do some of us overcome the inherited resistance to exercise and all the hurdles our society puts in our path?
For many of us, it’s simply a carry-over from our youth. Others have made a logical choice that exercise is a good thing to do.
Or perhaps a health scare inspired exercise, or it was adopted as a way to manage weight. Maybe a friend talked us into it, or a spouse is a regular exerciser and we tag along.
The reasons why some of us exercise are as varied as the reasons why most of us don’t.
I exercise regularly, and many of the reasons cited above apply. But what has become most important to me is the way it helps me feel good every day. The only time we have is right now, and therefore now is the most critical time of life.
Don’t we owe it to ourselves to feel as good as we can to maximize life in the moment?
Please don’t assume I operate like a programmed robot. As with everyone else, there are times when I struggle with my natural tendencies to avoid exercise. What do I do? That depends.
Sometimes I give in and opt for a glass of wine and a comfortable chair.
On other days, I overcome my resistance, put on my walking shoes and jump on the treadmill.
To help me choose exercise, even on days when I’d rather give in to my genetic roots, I only do exercise that is comfortable and pleasant.
It took me a long time to learn that punishing exercise that builds a high level of fitness is only one choice among many options.
Most days I walk on the treadmill. I don’t have a set routine, and I try to make the experience as pleasant as possible by watching TV.
In this way I don’t pay attention to the time, and before I know it I’ve been walking for an hour or more.
The bottom line
We all have inherited the natural tendency to avoid exercise.
Unfortunately, always giving in to it is one reason why we are fatter, live sicker and die quicker than people in other advanced societies where exercise is built into the daily lifestyle.
Recognizing that this natural tendency is at work, and why it is, may help you overcome it.
Also, it helps to make your exercise less of a chore and as pleasurable as possible.
Bryant Stamford is professor and chairman of the department of exercise science at Hanover College in Hanover, Ind. Address questions or suggestions to “The Body Shop,” The Courier-Journal, P.O. Box 740031, Louisville, KY 40201-7431