In defense of skipping the gym

To anyone who feels that exercising at a gym is a lonely, pointless activity, this is for you!

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Whenever I attempt to exercise, I can’t shake the feeling—no matter how much I am literally shaking and rattling my muscles and bones around—that in this activity, there should be more. Specifically, that there should be someone or something on the other end of the transaction.

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To me, exercise is a lonely activity. Energy deserts me as I pant along a trail or fling my weighted hands around in the air. That it needs to leave me and be expressed into the world I have never doubted. But after awhile, I start to feel like I’m hanging art in gallery that no one will ever go into or singing into an empty auditorium. I crave a recipient, a home for my energy where it might be appreciated.

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What if, instead, that energy could still be invested in places where it would not disappear after the action ends, but yield those positive effects exponentially out into the world?

Our physical effort and stamina have long been closely correlated to our survival. Before becoming entrenched in the comforts of modern civilization, humans needed to hunt, gather, or grow food, build and repair our shelters, and maintain the material trappings of our lives manually. Anthropologist Herman Pontzer, a professor of Hunter College in New York City, describes the daily life of members of a modern hunter-gather people, the Hadza of Tanzania, in a recent New York Times article:

“Each day the women comb miles of hilly terrain, foraging for tubers, berries and other wild plant foods, often while carrying infants, firewood and water. Men set out alone most days to collect honey or hunt for game using handmade bows and poison-tipped arrows, often covering 15 to 20 miles.”

In addition to survival tasks, ancient hunter-gather tribes found outlets for their physical energy in crafting objects of beauty, or strengthening social bonds by helping others in the community.

Stop wasting your energy

We live in a modern world now where these types of energy transactions are few and far between. Instead, we spend currency to acquire our entertainment, our food, social status, and entrance to fitness clubs. Money serves as a middleman between energy and the goods that help us survive and enrich our lives. It serves this purpose fine, but for many of us, physical outlets of energy have been taken out of the equation entirely. We use our minds to acquire units of currency, while our natural physical exuberance and vitality festers within.

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So is born the drive to exercise. We have discovered, personally or following the direction of one of the thousands of health and fitness gurus that thrive in the Western world, that exercise provides an enormous boon for our mental, physical, and spiritual (I meditate when I run better than when engaged in any other activity) health. I certainly cannot blame anyone for seeking those life-enriching benefits for themselves.

However, limiting exercise to just those positive effects is selling our vital human potential a little short.

Exercise with a purpose

In my own life, my personal proclivities compelled me to strive to reduce the environmental impact of the upkeep of myself and the material world that surrounds me. I found that this pursuit, approached wholeheartedly, involved more than enough effort to replace four weekly trips to the gym.

To reduce water, I now do my laundry by hand, plunging and scrubbing my clothes in a five-gallon bucket. I do this outside in a swimsuit, and can testify that the endeavor gets my heart pumping, my neck sweating, and my arms a little sore the next day. I’ve discovered, as an added bonus, that I enjoy this process vastly more than going to the laundromat, brimming with satisfaction as I watch colorful items blow softly on the clothing line.

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I also garden to a level that may be more accurately classified as farming.

If safe to do so, I opt out of driving, instead locomoting my body over vast and not-so-vast distances by foot or bicycle.

My body responds to these diverse demands on its capabilities smoothly. I find myself injury free, unlike the lingering soreness and occasional sprains that accompanied the repetitive exercise routines of of my past. I notice a more lithe and fit form in the mirror too, but in all honestly that satisfaction pales to the joy of seeing what my body can do.

There is also the pleasure (albeit, occasional growing pains too) of having my ideals stretched and challenged as well; to see what I am and am not capable of as an individual human. This type of exercise gives its own brand of euphoric after-glow, in the form of an enhanced sense of purpose that shines out into all areas of my life.

A different kind of workout euphoria

All of the above may sound a bit extreme to some of you, depending where you live and your current lifestyle. I know that hand-washing your own clothes while living in a tiny apartment is totally not doable! But instead of following my lead to the T, use it as invitation to provide attention to those activities that excite you personallyt. Experiment with what pathways you direct your energy down, and discover how such alterations might affect the landscape of your own life.

For instance, make a resolution to bike to work a few days a week as the weather gets warmer. Start a small garden in the backyard, or in containers on the deck. Even something as simple as disconnecting your electric garage door and opening it manually (like everyone used to!) can give your arms a workout several times a day, as well as save electricity.

Markus Spiske | Unsplash

Our energy is special. Instead of dispelling it casually, be creative and think about all the ways we can bestow it on other sacred aspects of our lives. In doing so, we open ourselves up to ideals more meaningful and grand than a perfectly toned physique or crystal clear headspace (though perhaps providing some semblance of those along the way). If we, collectively, focus on what excites us and makes us feel more whole, perhaps a great deal of our loftiest aspirations, even those that now seem so unattainable, might soon feel a bit closer at hand. In this way, we can take care of ourselves while we take care of the world.

Of course, as an exception to the type of exercise I allude to here (mostly the begrudging, guild-ridden kind), there are those roads and sunlit paths that beg to be walked down for no reason at all. As we travel down these, perhaps we can focus on the sun above and the dirt below, in gratitude. That alone is a worthy purpose.

Maggie Jo Parsons
Maggie Jo Parsons
Maggie Jo is an idealist, writer, and art educator currently living and working on the Big Island of Hawaii. She delights in identifying strange flowers, checking out an unreasonable amount of books from the library, and listening to John Denver on lonely highways. She is inspired by those that live with compassion, grace, and love, and aims to follow in their footsteps.

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