“Mind your actions, as they become you.”-Buddha
In the year 2015, the IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report released statistics on health club memberships in the United States. The statistics, at least on the surface, are quite encouraging. Here are their findings:
⦁ 52.9 million Americans over the age of six have gym or health club memberships.
⦁ 23.2 million Americans are referred to as “core” members, utilizing these facilities at least 100 times per year.
⦁ 43% of these gym members utilize group exercise classes.
⦁ There are 8 million personal trainers in the United States.
These statistics should be encouraging. From a percentage standpoint, that’s lots of people claiming to be gym members.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”-Benjamin Disraeli
Yes, the statistics are encouraging, yet why does it seem that there are more overweight, hunched over, depressed, and lethargic Americans than we ever had before? Why are millennial’s projected to be the first generation of Americans that will not outlive their parents? What’s really going on, if so many of us are engaging in formal exercise? With so many conspiracy theories circulating American popular culture, surely there must be some insidious forces at work, some agents of evil sabotaging the earnest efforts of hard-working Americans. Like a lot of conspiracy theories, the devil is in the details.
Most of us are aware of the impact of poor diet on our exercise programs. All that effort in the gym, hoisting heavy iron dumbbells and barbells, can be wiped out by a 3 ounce spoon of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream quite quickly. And, those “core” gym members who utilize the gym 100 times per year often will engage the gyms services daily from January 1 to the end of February, dropping off to a couple of times a month for the rest of the year. “Something came up,” “too busy,” or “I just don’t have enough time,” become the stories that a person tells themselves. “I’m going back next week,” becomes the excuse to keep that Planet Fitness membership card on your key ring. It looks cool, kind of a status symbol, and serves as visible proof that you will go back “next week.”
The biggest conspiracy is the relationship between human nature and the convenience offered by the modern lifestyle. Many of those “core” gym members do, in fact, put in a lot of hard work in the gym. An hour per day, three days per week, is certainly a sufficient amount of time put in to keep in great shape… isn’t it? Well the answer is, like a lot of things Zen, maybe…
The reality is that there are 168 hours in a week. Our hard-working gym member utilizes 3 of those hours in hard and purpose driven exercise. They may have the greatest program available, an enthusiastic and inspiring personal trainer, and a 20,000 square foot gym filled with the latest equipment to motivate them. The problem is not with their effort, but with how they spend the other 165 hours during the week. The devil that lies in the details here is not effort, enthusiasm, or even willpower. It’s a lifestyle where sitting in chairs, working at sedentary jobs 40+ hours per week, and spending five hours per day hunched over in active cell phone addiction can sabotage these efforts.
If you ask a typical person who exercises whether or not they are sedentary, they are likely to tell you with a mixture of indignation and pride, that they certainly are not. They are likely to follow it with, “I go to the gym three times a week,” or some other impressive and true statement that validates the hard work that they know they put in. It’s frustrating to many people who put in the effort that they don’t look or feel all the positive benefits of their hard work.
Statistically, a sedentary lifestyle is defines as one where a person is sitting 5 to 6 hours per day or more. While there are no statistics on how many Americans are doing this, it’s safe to say that it is probably a lot more than those who claim that they are bona fide gym members. It’s also safe to say that many of these hard-working gym rats have jobs and a lifestyle that is sabotaging their best efforts. If you throw “Screen Time” – the amount of time a person spends watching television or hunched over a computer or iPhone into the mix, and you got a lot of well-intentioned people living an out of balance lifestyle.
The human body is a remarkably adaptive, ever-changing organism that modifies its shape to the activities that it does habitually. There is a reason that the village blacksmith had that huge right arm, distance runners have lean, sinewy legs, and that hard-working person at the gym has poor posture, sloped shoulders, and an out of proportion butt. Relatively speaking, we tend to physically turn into the activities that we engage in most of the time. Since most of us don’t have the luxury of quitting our job and moving to Alaska to live the reality TV lifestyle, or the ability to distance ourselves from the social obligations of hanging out with our families, there has to be some kind of solution.
“Be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” – Bruce Lee
Many philosophical traditions look at human development as a process of constantly becoming. Life is a process of growth, change, and development-whether we are conscious of it or not we are in a constant state of change and adaptation. The direction of our change is determined by those things that we believe, think, and do. We literally become what we do. In no area of human development does this happen more definitively and subtly than in our activities. We don’t think of being sedentary as an activity, but nothing could be farther than the truth. Our bodies conform and ultimately take their shape from the activities that we engage in most often. That poor posture, protruding abdomen, and the accompanying physical problems are the result of our sedentary lifestyle. While the physical toll that this takes is quite obvious, the mental health impact is equally as profound.
Most sedentary positions result in the body turning in on itself. Sitting in that Lazy Boy recliner night after night eventually results in a body that is hunched forward in the shoulders, internal organs that are condensed into the lower abdominal region, and a development of a disempowering posture. This posture, if carried into your daily activity, sends a message to your mind that says “I am weak and powerless.” This feeling is reflected in all areas of your mental and physical life. The sedentary lifestyle causes attitudinal changes which result in a person feeling that their get up and go is gone. Expecting that hour of exercise you get each day to offset the 23 hours of inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle is expecting too much.
What’s the antidote? What can the dedicated fitness enthusiast do to offset the debilitating impact of the inescapable sedentary lifestyle? The answer is to take a break:
⦁ Throughout the day, be cognizant of how much time you are spending being sedentary. For each hour that you sit take a five-minute movement break. The movement can be nonspecific – such as moving your arms, rotating your neck, stretching your spine, or it can be formal-engaging in a routine of stretching, chair yoga, or brief walking. Anything that gets you moving and loosens up your spine, shoulders, and hamstrings will be very beneficial.
⦁ If possible, lay on your back with your knees elevated some time during the sedentary period of your day. This flattens out your upper and lower back without putting undue stress on either. Research indicates that knee and back orthopedic issues are virtually nonexistent in cultures where people toilet and sleep on the floor. People in these cultures have more knee and hip flexibility and better balance in old age. Certainly, don’t give up that American Standard flush toilet or that memory foam mattress, but I think you get the idea.
⦁ When you do those formal workouts, try to do activities where you are moving your body through space rather than merely sitting on weight machines or recumbant bikes. Reading on the treadmill or any other cardiovascular equipment is a waste of your valuable exercise time. When working out, emphasize the working!
⦁ Constantly remind yourself, both on days when you have a formal work out and those in which you don’t, to engage in both specific and nonspecific movement throughout the day. Remember to ask yourself, “What are you doing for the other 23 hours?” This will help you to not sabotage the hard efforts that you put in at the gym.
⦁ Consider giving up your gym membership in order to work out without equipment. I know this sounds like heresy, but here’s the logic. Nineteenth century Americans were far more fit and vigorous than those of us in the 21st century. They didn’t live as long, not because they weren’t healthy, but because they didn’t have the luxury of modern medicine to prevent them from succumbing to catastrophic illnesses. The combination of an old-school attitude towards exercise and a life, combined with 21st century medical advances, could be the secret to a triple digit life expectancy. There are hundreds of workouts that a person can do with minimal equipment using body weight, household items, and equipment where your body uses its own kinesthetic senses to balance, work, and create resistance. If you have cable television, there is probably an exercise channel that could get you going in the right direction.
⦁ Consciously work on your posture. Working the rotator cuff muscles, upper back, core and abdominal muscles is imperative. A strong, flexible back and a tight abdomen are not vanity. There were necessity for health, longevity, and a vigorous lifestyle.
⦁ Have a formal exercise regimen that you adhere to. Work hard during that “sacred time” that you dedicate to this routine. Just don’t forget “What are you doing for the other 23 hours?” Remember, your body will shape itself to the activities you engage in most often. Sit in the chair, you become the chair.
Keep in mind that, in 2016, it’s virtually impossible not to become a victim of the Zen of being sedentary. We ultimately become the things that we do most often. This applies to all aspects of our behavior, the shaping of our character, and is a primary factor in our physical development. We are in a state of constant growth that develops in accordance with our actions. Life is a state of constantly becoming. Be a little more mindful of what you are becoming physically as well.
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