My true thoughts on exercise and the relentless pursuit of health.
I will begin my saying that what I do as a runner, I do not classify as exercise. I am an athlete who trains and competes. Thus running to me is a sport, a way of life, and something from which I gain considerable rewards both personal (self-actualization, -expression, -gratification, -conception, -enrichment) and social (social attraction and group accomplishment).
Exercise is defined as any planned, purposeful, structured and repetitive engagement of physical activity with the aim of improving or maintaining physical fitness which encompasses a number of components such as body composition, cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and endurance (Caspersen, Powell & Christenson 1985).
When I think about this definition I see people exercising for the sole purpose of getting in better 'shape' or attaining improved health and fitness. While this purpose is surely important to me and is definitely used to motivate my continued (exercise) behaviours; it is NOT the primary reason that I run. Rather I run for the pure enjoyment of the activity, the pursuit of athletic achievement and success (which is highly personal), the competition, and the continuous goal to always improve myself upon past performance. I would continue to run even if I knew it would decrease my lifespan, even if it meant I would compromise my health, even if it led to financial ruin, perhaps even if it led to personal self-destruction and death!
But I am not like most people. Most people who run, or walk, or work out, or whatever are doing it for a very specific reason (albeit far from the only one). They do it because 'we' (government, media, the industry) tell them it is good for them: that exercise will increase their fitness, decrease their weight and improve their overall well-being. That it will make them live longer and have a better life. We tell them that it will make them happier and 'healthier!' And perhaps it will... in fact, I would argue that it often will!
But why is this so important? That is the fundamental question. Why are we telling people to be healthier. Moreover what does health even mean? Can it be defined? Certainly not in simple terms.
Health is a multidimensional phenomenon. It involves physical, mental and social determinants which all play a unique role in establishing an individual’s well-being (Lox, Martin Ginis & Petruzzello, 2006). Health is "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." (World Health organization, 1946). I have no interest in defining health or arguing over what it means. For me, health is a highly personal concept that above all else means being physically functional and capable, socially fulfilled and emotionally happy and content with the person you are each and every day.
I'm sure that I've shocked many people at this point. I mean, aren't I the guy who goes around pushing physical activity on everyone and shaming and blaming those who are fat and lazy. Well yes, I am.
For me, physical activity, exercise, sport...whatever you want to call it, has brought me a plethora of benefits and rewards and has enhanced my life in numerous ways. Therefore, I personally have nothing but wonderful things to say about it and highly recommend it. But I also know that this isn't likely to be the case for many, perhaps most, others. Exercise is physically exerting, it's time-consuming, and it's even becoming expensive...
So going back to the big question: Why is physical activity, exercise, sport (and ultimately health) so important and why do we feel we need to force it on everyone?
Well here are some possibilities:
1. We have too! As a semi-socialist and democratic country, we have to at least pretend to care about our citizens and thus there is an obligation to take care of our people. Elected officials must appear to look out for the best interests of their voters, and thus make it seem as they are doing good for all people.
2. Our health care system. Isn't it great that we don't have to pay for health care?! Well no actually, because we do pay for it...and we pay a lot, with our taxes. Health care spending is becoming hugely expensive and will continue to do so. The demand for health care is also increasing and this is directly related to the deteriorating 'health' of our population. Heart disease, diabetes and cancer continue to become more prevalent. These conditions also just happen to be closely correlated with obesity...which can be prevented (in part) by physical activity. In theory, getting people more fit and less fat will reduce health care costs...in theory.
3. Capitalism. Isn't it funny how almost every problem with current society comes down to this little gem. Not only has the health and fitness industry become hugely commercialized within the past decades (think sports equipment, gyms and fitness centres, do it yourself exercise machinery, fitness apparel, books, videos, websites, personal trainers, coaching, etc. etc.), but the whole concept of being fit and healthy is inherently tied to increased productivity and thus financial gain. Paradoxically, by stressing personal health and fitness within this commercial environment, the industries actually make more profit due to failure than to success. The diet and food industries rack up billions each year and yet we continue to get more fat and less fit.
4. Social norms/ideals. How many people do you know that look like the guys and girls on the covers of Men's and Women's Health (magazine)?! Probably no one! And yet, these images are the ones we continuously consider to be the most ideal and strive toward (thin and slender females, muscular and mesomorphic males). Not only are these images entirely fake and unrealistic, but they also happen to be physically unattainable for the average person consuming them. It is no wonder that we as a society have failed to attain this ideal, and yet we continue to use it as a something to aim towards.
5. Human nature. The human body is a mortal and vulnerable object and everyone has a personal responsibility to themselves to care of it. We are told that exercise is a way in which to do this as evolutionary it has enabled the survival and success of our species. Moreover, it is natural that we want to take care of each other and look out for one another.
6. Elitism. We feel better about ourselves when we are able to do what others can not. Exercise has become an activity of the upper classes who feel a need to educate and improve the less fortunate social groups.
7. The betterment of society?! I often have a hard time believing this one although some people do consider it a realistic goal. Some people believe that an all-round 'healthier' society is also a better one.
Physical activity, exercise and sport can and should be used to enhance and add value to one's life. They have numerous physical, psychological and social benefits that are generally available to those who consume them. These benefits might contribute to overall 'health' which is a term that epitomizes ambiguity. For these and a number of other reasons, exercise and PA are considered valuable and important. But why do we push physical activity and exercise on our entire population? Why is it so important? Is being 'healthy' important? Is living a long time important? Would the world be a better place if everyone was fit and healthy?
If you think 'yes,' then I must ask: "why?"