Exercise for the soul

Where's the fun?

Dude – where’s my fun?

The Escape Artist is on holiday.  I wrote this after a run through dappled sunshine in a pine forest on a mountainside along the Costa Brava.  The mountain was bathed in the Spanish sunshine and overlooks a beach out across the Mediterranean.   So this seems like a good point to talk exercise.

Exercise is as natural and as vital to living a good life as eating or sleeping.  We are not designed for sedentary living. Our bodies don’t work well if we spend 1 hour a day sitting in a train shaped metal and glass box, followed by 10 hours sitting in an office shaped glass box then another hour sitting in another train shaped box. It’s not that surprising that sedentary office commuters get back problems.  Our bodies work on a “use it or lose it” basis.

So getting exercise matters. But not all exercise is equal, how we get it matters as well.  Exercise should as natural as possible. So walking indoors on a treadmill is better than sitting watching TV.  Walking outdoors down a tree-lined street is better.  But, given the choice, I’d rather go walking in woods and hills surrounded by natural beauty.

Picture a modern gym of the type frequented by office workers.  Most of these gyms are soulless exercise factories. To me there is something a bit depressing about the rows of plastic / metal exercise machines lined up in front of TV screens beaming MTV images of pop stars mimicking moves from a bad soft porn movie. Meanwhile, the runners pound away on treadmills going nowhere. This reminds me of battery farming. It represents the industrialisation of exercise.

The treadmills, the static bikes and the step machines are replicating walking, cycling and using the stairs.  These are things that we should be doing in real life.  What’s next – perhaps The Bump & Grind Lovemaster 3000 machineTM?

Most gym chains are to exercise what McDonalds is to food.  So you have a choice.  You can burn 100 calories running on the treadmill under fluorescent lights, plugged into MTV.  Or, you can burn 100 calories doing something real – riding your bike into town or walking to a meeting instead of getting a cab.

One obvious difference is the cost.  The less you are paying for your exercise, the more natural it is likely to be.  The cost of a subscription for a gym in London might be say £40 per month. If you are 25 and you can achieve 7% per annum real return on your investments then by ditching the gym your cost savings if reinvested will be worth about £102,533 in today’s money when you are 65.  If you love the gym, fine go ahead. But if you are a January gym joiner who lapses by April, you’re better off keeping the £100k.

Another difference is motivation.  Our natural motivation is to do as little physical exercise as possible.  We evolved in an environment of scarcity where great physical effort was frequently required. It’s not true that hard work never killed anyone.  Go back a few centuries and it killed plenty of people.

The people that survived and passed on their genes did not waste their energy on unnecessary exercise.  Cave men probably did not go to Crossfit classes or go running unless hunting food or fighting enemies was involved.  Between hunts they lounged about conserving energy, shooting the breeze and bragging about the size of their last catch.

I used to periodically join a gym, go for a while and then let things slide. This tends to happen with any form of exercise that we prescribe for ourselves like a bossy doctor.  Willpower is grossly over-rated. If we don’t get an immediate payback from it, we will quit.  So it’s better to focus on exercise that you want to do, you enjoy or gives you some other form of rapid gratification – this could be achievement (attaining a goal) social (e.g. time with friends) or financial (money saving).

If you want to achieve a goal enough then you will do whatever it takes. On Everest this is known as summit fever.  I haven’t climbed Everest but I have cycled some of the big Tour de France climbs (e.g. Alpe d’Huez, Col du Galibier, Col de la Croix de Fer) and I was no more likely to quit before the summit than The Terminator.

Putting aside those extremes, exercise feels best when it is so integrated into your life that it becomes a natural by-product of living.  One of the tricks that Mr Money Mustache encourages is to re-introduce muscle power back into your life and to save the money previously spent on convenience.

One example is grocery shopping with a bike trailer.  By re-framing the cycling as something we do to get food, the payback of the exercise becomes tangible and obvious.  By ditching the car we can save petrol and maintenance costs.  The cost saving is good but the bigger win is toughening up a bit, mentally and physically.

Once you start to de-industrialise your exercise in this way, you realise that the important element of cycling is not the carbon fibre widgets or the dubious lycra clothing.  Your desire to spend on kit upgrades may start to fade and your money will stay working for you.  The important bit is getting somewhere you want to be or getting shit done.

I use cycling as a way to combine exercise with transportation.  When I started working in London, I bought a bike and ventured out onto the mean streets of Battersea.  This felt like a taste of freedom in an over-regulated world.  There I was, a professional cubicle jockey, experiencing speed, sweat and real life.  Like when a drugged lab rat escapes from his cage and the white coated assistant shouts “We’ve got a live one here!

People ask me if I’m scared cycling in London. Its true that you tend to remember your first time cycling round Trafalgar Square.  This definitely involved expanding my comfort zone.  But by doing this, you will be growing less like one of the electric motor chair bound humans in Wall-E.

I commuted to the office by bike pretty much every day when I lived in London.  In sun, rain and sleet. Motivation was no problem as I could always see the point. I saved money. It got me to work on time so I cunningly avoided getting fired.  It used my time more efficiently.  Rather than spending 2 x half an hour on the tube and then an hour in the gym on the cycling machine I combined exercise with travel.  This freed up an extra hour every day available for crushing it at work or chilling at home.

When it comes to exercise, I don’t just want to be told what to do. I want to understand why that way works. The best book that I’ve read for this is The De Vany diet (also called the New Evolution Diet).

De Vany lays it out brilliantly with reference to evolution. If you think about the exercise we would have got naturally as cavemen, it would typically have involved walking to the hunting grounds, followed by some jogging to get near the game. The kill would involve an intense sprint then a period of upper body strength to administer the kill, followed by the walk home sharing the burden of carrying the carcass.  De Vany advocates replicating this pattern of exercise but without the blood and gore.  In practice, this means:

  • introducing randomness and variability into your exercise
  • a mixture of upper and lower body exercise
  • focussing on intensity (not just endurance)

Having read de Vany’s book, I moved to more natural ways of exercising.   I stopped road-running and started running on trails in the woods.  I ditched the gym membership and now get my upper body exercise from a mixture of old fashioned manual labour (e.g. chopping wood), a few push-ups and sprinting.

Sprinting is an interesting example. Between the ages of 20 and 40 I never really sprinted.  I mean sprinting like the opening scene of Trainspotting where Ewan McGregor has been spotted shoplifting. There wasn’t much call for it in the office.   But it turns out that sprinting is incredibly exhilarating, even when you are not holding stolen goods and being pursued by security guards. It’s a totally different experience from jogging, using much more upper body.  Have you noticed how different a sprinter’s physique is from that of a long distance runner? (picture Usain Bolt versus Mo Farrah).

The other thing that is worth re-introducing is the element of fun and play that we naturally enjoy as children but may lose somewhere along the way.   So I go running with my daughter at the local Park Run.  I’ve also joined local running / cycling groups where the socialising is at least as important as the exercise.  And playing football and basketball with my 2 boys is the most fun way possible to get exercise mixed with laughs, tantrums and triumphs.  The best things in life are free.


  1. There’s many truths written above. For me regular exercise (and cycling in particular) gives me the following:

    – Physical fitness
    – Mental/stress release
    – Motivation to maintain a healthy diet
    – An enormous sense of well being

    I used to be a real cycling geek, measuring all sorts of metrics (heart rate, speeds, power output etc) and spending stupid money on kit. Over the last few years I’ve realised that this won’t make me faster. Now I am proud of my 30 year old steel framed bike, I measure nothing, repair the machine myself and ride for the sheer joy of it. It’s far cheaper and I’m fitter (and faster) than I’ve ever been!

    1. Yes indeed! You’re right UTMT – its not about the bike. Also reminds me of when i bought a heart rate monitor. What gets measured gets managed. In my reckless youth I took this as a trigger to sprint cycle up a hill near me to see if I could get my heart rate up to 200 bpm. Like an idiot, I “succeeded”.

  2. Paullypips · · Reply

    Good points and well made. Cycling saves cash, time and it’s very good for you as well.
    I enjoy both cycling and riding my motorcycle depending on the distance I need to travel/my mood.
    Both are free to park in Cambridge where I live. I have an ageing Claud Butler Odyssey push bike (with a rear carrier) and use it for supermarket shopping on most days. A cheap back pack allows me to carry plenty of groceries. Although I usually maintain the bicycle myself, last week I treated it to a professional service and new rear tyre (its first dealer visit in over ten years) – total cost £30! I was out early this morning, it was sunny and cool and a bit breezy, when I got back I felt like million dollars. The best things in life really are free. Fresh air, some exercise and the world’s a better place. Breakfast tasted wonderful too (a crispy brown baguette with salmon and salad filling). Many thanks for another great blog posting.

    1. PP – Thanks for the comment and the reminder of how a town can be perfect for cycling. I have many fond memories of Cambridge…the Anchor, the Eagle, the King St Run, the Cambridge Arms, the Ancient Druids….sigh

  3. I bike to work. But not always. Kids need a drop off, or want to wait at the station and talk to the wife for five minutes. Or the weather is unduly crap. Then, I catch the train. I’m already a chubster and if I don’t exercise I feel crap to boot.

    Going to the gym is convenient: there are many machines, it is indoors with nice showers. There is that nice lady on the machine next to yours.

    It is also unfortunately usually very boring.

    Spending my working week on the mental equivalent of a hamster wheel means that paying to do the same in the gym is droll, oh yes, how funny is that. Hilarious. So I never used to be able to do it – too much boring repetition, no idea whether it’s doing you any good but you feel knackered all the same. So why not stop. Which I did.

    But, it can work for you all the same. This is where the heart rate monitor thingy is actually useful. It keeps you in that zone where your body is getting good out of it, and where you know the effort isn’t all being p*ssed away because you’re over or underdoing it. Also gives you a target to focus on which – seeing you are staring at a wall or worse a mirror, cannot but be a good extra thing to have around.

    So, I will agree with much of the above – but please don’t diss the humble heart rate monitor – they only cost about 12 quid anyway.

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