Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Other Kind of Exercise


Modern exercise is a funny thing, you have to admit: it's an imitation of and a substitute for the actual exercise that people in earlier generations did as part of daily life. To burn calories and improve our cardiovascular fitness, we go to the gym, where we have machines that allow us to pretend we're climbing real stairs or running actual distances or biking up and down genuine mountains. This is synthetic exercise, a simulacrum of true exertion invented and very profitably marketed by the fitness industry to compensate for the one-two punch of the Standard American Diet and a convenience-based, efficiency-oriented, and technology-driven national lifestyle.

Of course, I'm as guilty as many people of buying into synthetic exercise, since I have an elliptical trainer which allows me to stay indoors in bad weather rather than venture outside, and which I use to compensate for a college professor's very sedentary daily routine, where the big exertion comes when I have to carry books to the library and back. I'm in no position to scold, but at least I'm aware of the modern irony of fitness: if people didn't insist on driving everywhere and parking within 20 feet of their destination, for example, they might not need to spend so much time on the treadmill in the first place.

I was especially aware of that irony today, when I skipped the elliptical but spent two hours in my back yard, using a shovel and a pitchfork (hence today's picture!) to turn the soil for this year's vegetable garden - in this part of the country, we need to get the cool weather veggies in the ground by now if we want them to grow before the hot weather rolls in. I don't have a huge garden, but digging even a small one for two hours means a fair amount of genuine exercise, one sort of real manual labor that existed long before elliptical machines and stairmasters. And better still, that work I did had an actual purpose beyond burning calories: in a couple months I will be eating healthful, home-grown food from that garden, which will make me healthier still and save me money besides. Nowadays this might be the "other kind" of exercise, but there's definitely something to be said for it.

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