My father always said "Think of it as exercise"

Shoveled sidewalk

Maybe you have a father like mine.

When I was growing up, I noticed that every time there was some menial chore to do, he would tell me, “Think of it as exercise”. For example:

I didn’t enjoy physical activity at all (being rather sickly and weak when young), so I treated his remark as a taunt and a way to get me to do chores.

OK, it was partially a taunt. But underneath, given that he actually practices what he preaches, even today, there is something else.

I now find myself saying “Think of it as exercise” too, both to Abby and to myself.

What happened? (No, I have not yet “become my father”!)

The very concept of exercise

I’ve found that many people of my parents’ generation have no concept of “exercise”, and for good reason: they grew up involved in much physical activity out of necessity, and it was just a part of life. They didn’t have access to or could not afford to buy various “labor-saving” devices and services. So for them, going to the gym or something like that is just a totally foreign concept, something that only the freaks who were professional athletes or narcissists do.

And they’re right. It’s completely unnatural to spend vast amounts of time hooked up to some “exercise” machines if you’re actually going around chasing down deer, running after chickens, pulling weeds, building your own roof, washing loads of laundry, going to the river repeatedly to haul buckets of water back, walking miles to get anywhere at all, etc.

Human beings have always moved. And we are adapted to move. The dilemma of modern industrialized life is that very often, we do not need to move. We can outsource our labor to a machine or to someone else. Supposedly this is an advance because we can then exert our energies on “higher” pursuits, like writing labor-saving computer programs, endlessly being entertained by TV and YouTube, and writing blog posts.

Re-imagining exercise

But I learned something a decade ago when I started “exercising” and changed my life. Although engaging in traditional “exercise” benefited me tremendously, I still did not feel “whole”, truly human. So over the years, I gradually backed away from what I considered alienating forms of labor, toward more natural types of activities, to the point that most recently, I have moved toward body weight strength training.

In the past year, going even further in my awareness, I’ve gravitated toward actually finding value and opportunity in everyday chores that require physical activity.

This is the first winter in my life in which I have not complained about shoveling snow, for example. (Not that it’s my favorite thing to do!) I “think of it as exercise”; I treat it as a serious, interesting workout. In the past, I’d just do it and grumble. Now, I do it mindfully, thinking of which muscles I’m using and what form I have. Shoveling well is actually pretty tricky, because you have to watch your back, manage torque and leverage, etc.

So I’ve not only gone out to shovel snow from my sidewalk when needed, but I’ve also stopped grumbling when one of my neighbors fails to shovel snow from their sidewalk. I just go and do theirs. Maybe they’re out of town or something. It doesn’t matter what the reason, but the sidewalk needs to be shoveled and so I do it. It’s my exercise.

Also, brushing snow off my own car is exercise as well and again, involves lots of interesting movements. I like using long cross-body swipes to be efficient at getting snow down and off my car.

My car with snow off


I’m not going to pretend that various physical chores are my favorite things to do, but by taking my father’s old advice, “Think of it as exercise,” I’ve made life more interesting and fun for myself, and it makes me feel more connected to my core humanity as a physical being. Spending much of my earlier life living only in my mind was a mistake. There is much joy in simple physical pleasures.

(Update of 2013-02-10)

Abby alerted me to this article exploring the benefits of everyday activity such as taking the stairs and raking leaves.

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