Tired of Research Studies That Tell You to Exercise?

Are you tired of reading about scientific studies that say you should exercise?

One article came across my science feed this morning, reporting on yet another research study that proves with statistical significance that exercise is good for me. By now the drumbeat is numbingly repetitive: Exercise or else!

In the last year I have read research studies asserting that exercise can reduce or alleviate dementia, depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, addictions, and cancer; it can boost the immune system, improve balance and agility, and bolster mental, emotional, physical and, as this study claims, cognitive health. While many of these studies focus on older adults, this one extends its reach to younger adults as well: You too should exercise and here is why. OK! Got it!

Yet, the CDC reports that only 23% of adult Americans achieve the federal recommendations for physical activity. And I can imagine a typical reader’s response to the study: “I know I know [nods head and rolls eyes] [swipes to next article]. I’ll start next week.” So why do we keep hitting ourselves over the head with stories about what we already know we should do – and aren’t doing? Does it really help?

There is another way to read this article and others like it.

The point to take away is not that we should exercise.

The point is that we are not who we think we are.

This study – without reflecting upon it – advances a radical idea: the movements that we make as bodily selves influence how we think, how well we think, even what we think. Researchers found that aerobic activity not only improved participants’ ability to complete thinking tests, it actually built up grey matter in the left frontal cortex, a “control center” responsible for a dizzying range of cognitive, emotional, motor, social and sexual behaviors.

Taking these conclusions one step further, we may go so far as to say that our capacity to think is not only influenced by our bodily movements, it is dependent upon the movements we make – and I would add, not just the amount of movement (how many minute per day), or the kind of movement (aerobic versus stretching), but the patterns of movement and how those patterns educate our sensory awareness. How we move effects what we sense; what we sense impacts how we feel; how we feel influences what we can think. And all the way back in reverse.

The implication of this article, then, is not: go exercise, or else! The implication is that saying “go exercise” is not actually going to help. We need to think differently about our bodily selves.

Said otherwise, thinking about ourselves as bodily organisms who can choose to exercise is part of the reason why we are not exercising. “Exercise” appears as an add-on. It is extra. It is optional. It is a matter of will power. It is something “we” tell “our bodies” to do for a good reason. And there are many. But good reasons are never enough. Because we are not just our thoughts. We are much more.

As the article implies, we humans are movement. We are the bodily movements we can make, have made, and will make, whether consciously or unconsciously, by choice or under duress. And we are these movements in mutual exchange with a wealth of movements made by other creatures and elements around us and within us who are also moving in relation to us.

At the same time, given the findings of the article, it will not be enough to think differently about ourselves, we also need to move in ways that help us think differently. In other words, we need to do what we can to cultivate a sensory awareness of the movements we are already making, so we can learn to pay attention in any given moment to what the moving, relational matrix of our bodily selves knows.

Further, the “exercise” that the subjects in this study were doing, at least in my mind, is not all that inspiring: it is not the kind of movement that many people are going to be able sustain over the long run – because we are not just our thoughts. Sure, there may a few people who can run on a treadmill, or stationary cycle day in and day out for years; but even for those who do so, there is usually some sort of pleasure or emotional charge involved.

The motivating charge that sustains a movement practice can come from vanity, a competitive spirit, or peer pressure; it can come from a need to relieve pain or illness, from the fear of being injured, or from a desire to accomplish a certain physical feat. In the most sustainable situations, the motivating charge comes from a desire to feel good. To feel the pleasure of breathing, reaching, releasing, and being drawn into the vibrant present. To feel the transformation that movement so often yields, from dullness or discomfort to the joy of being a moving bodily self.

In these instances, the movements that a person is making will enable her to feel these feelings – to open to her sensory self – and thus become more vulnerable, will power or not, to the desire and the need to move some more.

This is not just “exercise.” It is about finding ways of moving that sustain our ongoing bodily becoming over a lifetime. And there are many ways to do so.

Sooner or later, if you engage in patterns of movement that only support your sense of yourself as a thinking mind, your bodily self will start telling you that you need to move differently. If you are moving in ways that limit and deplete your flexibility, stretch, and stamina, your bodily self will resist. Your bodily self will find some way of communicating with you that grabs your attention — most likely with one of those conditions above that “exercise” alleviates.  At that point, it is your choice whether to mask the symptoms, or listen to the causes.

Here then, is where such studies have value – not as props for your will power, but as encouragement to listen to what your bodily self already knows, to look for your life, and to move accordingly.

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