Why have we made exercising -- at least the way we do it in the places that have come to be known as "health clubs" -- such an awful experience? It's a question I had time to mull recently on my 14-hour plane ride back from Seoul, where I was for the launch of HuffPost Korea. While I was there I was amazed at their practice of Kouksundo -- a practice that combines meditation, breathing and martial arts and has been shown to boost productivity and reduce anxiety and stress -- which was so different from how we approach fitness.
It's quite a contrast to the gyms that have become America's temples of physical well-being, with their bright lights, loud thumping music, uncomfortable furniture and machines that seem to have been designed by sadists, and populated by people who often seem miserable, joylessly going through the strenuous motions so they can check off the exercise box on that day's to-do list and get the heck out of there. There's a reason we call it "working out" as opposed to "playing out."
And those are the ones motivated enough to actually drag themselves in. A large portion of health club members, even those paying hefty monthly fees, don't go. As Daniel Duane pointed out in Men's Journal, in order to make money, health clubs and gyms need to have around 10 times as many members as they're designed to accommodate.
But does it have to be like this? Does going to the gym have to be something to be endured?
After all, we know that physical activity is an incredibly powerful component of our overall well-being. Every day brings more evidence of the depth of the connection. For instance, one study out of Southern Methodist University found that the effects of physical activity on mild to moderate depression were so powerful that the study's author, Jasper Smits, wrote a guidebook urging mental health professionals to actually prescribe exercise as a medical intervention. There are also studies showing how regular physical activity increases cognitive function and brain connectivity. And, conversely, we also know how bad for us a lack of physical activity can be. According to an American Cancer Society study, people with a sitting job are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than those with standing jobs. This is not a new discovery. A 1950s study of people in similar lines of work showed that London bus drivers had a higher incidence of death from cardiovascular disease than bus conductors, and that government clerks had a higher incidence than postal workers.
The benefits of making our bodies fitter are deeply connected to the fitness of our inner selves, but gyms make it hard to feel that connection. They don't allow for the kind of solitude and mindfulness that we can get communing with nature on an outdoor run. And, overly muscled pickups aside, they aren't very conducive to making any real social connection. A person watching her own screen while walking on a treadmill next to another person watching another screen while walking on a treadmill is like a metaphor for our modern life. It's what we do at work, at home and at the gym.
This is why Nicholas Miriello, a senior blog editor at HuffPost, prefers to use his daily run not just for his body but for his mind. "On the subway, on the street, in the car between traffic lights, or worse, while driving, while watching television, while at work, while lying in bed, etc., we are glued to our phones, to our email, to our Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest," he writes. So for him, running is the one time he has to disconnect. And "soon after the moment of disconnect," he writes, "I find myself actually connected. Connected with my surroundings, with my thoughts, with my body, with myself."
It's a hard experience to replicate at an indoor facility. But, fortunately, that's beginning to change. The Guardian's Nicole Mowbray writes about the growing trend of the "calm workout," which she describes as "a new breed of holistic workout that promises to care for your head as well as your heart." For instance, there's Psycle, which offers spinning classes in rooms with low lights and calming music and features a "free time" break during the class. According to the company, its philosophy is inspired by the belief that "your state of mind is key to how often and how hard you exercise." There's also CardioLates, which combines spin and Pilates; Third Space, which offers the services of "wellness doctors"; and Spynga, which is part spin, part yoga.
These workouts are part of a trend driven by the understanding that getting fit doesn't have to be so unpleasant. And it's pretty simple to see that if we make exercise a more inviting and more rewarding experience, we'll do it more often. If we're going to redefine success to include well-being, we also need to redefine getting in shape to include mental and soul fitness.
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