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This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 116 – October 2005
It’s an age old question. The Greeks recognized that the departure from an instinctive, natural life, which was brought about by ‘civilized’ modes of living, made a regular system of bodily training a necessity. The ancient Egyptians thought differently. They proscribed it, reasoning that the need for formal exercise was the symptom of something wrong with the life of the individual. We can be sure that the guys who built the pyramids didn’t need to exercise at the end of a day spent pushing, pulling and lifting heavy stones.
Nowadays, when most people lift only pens and push only buttons, it is generally believed that exercise is a must for fitness and longevity. But there are some discordant voices which we should not dismiss out of hand. First, it would be a great, even grave error to mistake fitness with health. Fitness is a matter of training and conditioning. You can feel great and fit and yet, without knowing it, be seriously ill. Witness, for example, the early death (while running) of Jim Fixx, the running guru. Sadly, many more examples can be found among athletes. So, don’t trust your feeling, they are usually faulty. Paradoxically, peak fitness is bad for you – it can lower your immune system, and make you prone to all sorts of injuries. And sport or exercise will not solve musculoskeletal system complaints, as wide-range movements cannot give a balanced distribution of muscle tone throughout the body.
Longevity, now. When asked by a journalist what was the secret of his old age, Winston Churchill replied: “Sport – I never do any”. (I quote from memory).
In contrast, Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby said that: “those who think they have no time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness”. These two contradictory quotes echo the opinions held by experts in the matter. Because, as usual, experts do not agree. The question of longevity is so complex that the various studies and statistics of the relationship between exercise and mortality have never proved anything conclusively one way or another. So many other factors are involved that it’s difficult to do foolproof research in this field. I personally believe that nutrition and stress are the most important ones.
Life is movement by definition. But it does not have to be frantic movement. Several studies have found that physical activity, when too vigorous, is more harmful than beneficial. As usual, it’s safer to be on the side of moderation. Dr Ornish reckons that “moderate exercise is enough to provide you with almost all of the health and longevity benefits without most of the risks of more intense exercise”. Experts agree at least on one thing: walking is the best form of exercise for healthy and diseased people alike.
“Walking 30 minutes a day… is enough to receive most of the health benefits with the least risk of injury or death,” says Dr Ornish. You can walk almost anywhere and it does not require special equipment or clothing.
To obtain your healthy dose of physical activity, it makes sense to choose natural and useful forms of exercise. How bizarre is our avoidance of any physical activity, revealed by the popularity of labour-saving devices (there is even now an electronic lawn-mower which mows on its own), contrasted with our fondness to sweat out all this saved energy on labour-intensive machines in the gym. It seems perverse to drive – and pollute the planet – to the gym in order to run or walk on a treadmill. Cycling or walking as a means of transport obviates the need for artificial exercise. Gardening is another great form of useful exercise. And it’s now official: researchers at Oxford Brookes University have studied the effects of exercise procured by gardening. The results are eloquent. Activities such as raking up leaves and piling logs can burn up as many, if not more, calories than an aerobics session at the gym. And the latest statistics reveal that digging burns about twice as many calories per minute as cycling. Aerobics burn fewer calories than a vigorous digging session. Moreover, you’ll be able to eat fresh, unprocessed and organic food. Could gardening be the answer to the obesity epidemic?
Alas, all the potential benefits you may get from your chosen form of exercise will be cancelled out if you don’t handle your body properly while indulging in it. Our reluctance to use our bodies in everyday activities could well be due to the inadequate knowledge we have about our body mechanics, translated into misuse of ourselves, so that we feel it is only safe to exercise under instruction at the gym. With good use of oneself we are equipped to derive pleasure and advantage from all forms of physical activities, however mundane or trivial we have previously considered them to be.