Why is it that I am 53 and have ignored well-intentioned and factual advice for 30 years to take regular exercise? I know that it will be good for me. I know that this is not baloney like many diets are. Taking more exercise is unquestionably good for me. For a while, I buckle under the social pressure and try it. I go to the gym, buy a rowing machine. If the barrier was only awareness, I should have taken it up years ago.
Why is this important? Because our health system will buckle soon if we don't find a way of living better. On PEI 59% of Islanders are overweight and the trend for children in particular is frightening. This is a health epidemic for the developing world. We are trying lots of things and making lots of excuses for why we are making no progress - the trend is getting worse at a non linear rate.
There are lots of theories for why we participate so poorly in taking exercise. The influence of TV as a passivity driver. The lack of organized sport at school. Busing at school. The lack of time in adult life because the demands at work are so great. The lack of coaching and facilities - if only we had a community pool, gym track etc. The diversion of sport money for the masses by a focus on elite sport etc. I wonder if the answer is both simpler and more complex than this?
I have been talking to my friend Brian Chambers and our bottom line as to why we have become the most slothful group in history is rooted in two questions. - Is taking regular exercise a habit? Is not taking regular exercise a habit?
Think a bit now. Is your day not right without exercise or is taking exercise an interruption to your day? Do you have withdrawal symptoms if you do not take exercise or do you feel worse if you do? These feelings are symptoms of habits. Habits are hard to change. You are a smoker and you know you should quit but cannot. You drink more than you should but you cannot stop. Merely having a lot of information is not enough to stop an ingrained habit. Acquiring a new habit is equally a challenge.
If taking/not taking regular exercise is a habit then much of how we have approached the issue of participation in regular exercise is probably not going to work. This is quite a statement - so let's do a bit more digging.
Why is it that we see only a few of us - we used to call them Fitness Freaks or Nuts - come rain or shine pounding the roads? Why do some some middle-aged men still get out every week in the season and play hockey while most of us only watch it?. Why do some women have to go to the gym every day and others not? Brian and I believe that those who take regular exercise have a habit. They have a need to take exercise every day. It is part of their whole life - they cannot imagine not taking exercise. Regular exercise defines them - it is part of their identity - it is who they are.
I bet that the opposite is true. Some people cannot "see" themselves taking exercise. Let's look at me and see how hard it is for me to take up this new habit and to break my lifetime habit of not taking exercise.
I have never taken to the habit of regular exercise. I think I have to go back to my early days to find out why. My parents did not take it seriously. They in fact sneered at it. Any prowess in this regard was ignored at home. In my home the habit was to use the mind. This is where the family reward system kicked in. "Sport" at home was winning the argument, breaking into the conversation or being seen as amusing. Secondly I had low conventional physical skills. In particular I have very poor hand ball foot coordination. I had to play "sport sport" at school but for me with no natural aptitude, "sport sport" was for me an exercise in humiliation. In primary school the team would groan when I was picked usually - last. At Harrow, I was the star of the 5th 11 in cricket. I dreaded Sports Day at my prep school where the only event I could be in was the 200 metres where they put all the slobs. Sport was defined in my youth as a team sport that usually involved skill with a ball of some sort. I can't do this. Now if I had been introduced to yoga, tai chi or rowing I might have found a mind/body sport that fitted me - but that was not the culture of sport then nor is it now at schools.
I never developed the habit of exercise as a boy. In fact I developed another habit - a lifelong dislike of using an awkward body and a lifelong love of the world of the mind. I have instead the habit of reading - in a poor week only one book. In a good week maybe 7 books. (This has been a good week) Many of my athletic friends tell me that they do not have the time to read. I sense that we are at two ends of a polarity.
There are the habits of the mind and the habits of the body. There appear to be extreme positions for each habit. If you are extreme at one end it may preclude you having time to indulge in the other. Some manage both but I sense that there is only so much time. Then there seems to be a huge group in the middle of people who neither read nor take exercise.
Habits can be formed and broken. At the right time habits are easy to form. All established habits are very difficult to break or change. It is important to consider this if we want to find a way of increasing the overall participation of people in regular exercise.
When are many of our habits formed? I suggest to you that regular reading and regular exercise are both habits that are mainly set when we are very young? Homes with no books rarely produce compulsive readers. Homes with no trophies rarely produce folks who define themselves through the use of their bodies. I am sure there are exceptions but this is my observed experience. I point out the home because we currently look to school and to the workplace as the frontier for improving participation. I am not saying don't try there. I am suggesting that we look earlier as well.
Breaking habits is so difficult. If not taking exercise is a habit then exhortation and more information will not get us to change. How easy is it to acquire the habit of literacy as an adult? How easy to give up drink or to give up smoking? Breaking bad habits is very hard. It took my father's death to give us as a family the motive to pull back on our drinking.
Some questions for you:
- Do you take regular exercise? If the answer is yes or no - Did you have a role model/support at home? Did you have a natural aptitude for ball and team sports?
- Do you have a habit such as smoking or weight or drink. - Can you give this up? Has it been easy to give this up? Could you do this without a support group? What type of support group might you need - of peers or experts?
- Are you a team sport person? If you are when did this begin and why
- Do you like individual activities? If yes when did this begin and what influenced you?
- Are you a big fan of professional sports? If so, did elite sport get you involved in taking exercise yourself ? If yes - what age were you when you gave it up and what do you do now?
- Did you play pavement hockey or some kid organized sport when you were young (skateboarding?) If yes, what do you think of adult organized sport?
Please help Brian and I with these questions and with our main thesis that regular exercise is a habit. Brian is the Chairman of Sport PEI and is tasked with the challenge of finding a way to take Canada's most inactive and fattest province and making it the opposite - no small thing. We are convinced that doing what we have been doing but harder will not work. So we are going outside of the box and asking ourselves the odd question - why if we know that exercise is good for us are we not taking this advice.
If we are right and the core issue is habit, then we will have to develop strategies to encourage the formation of the habit. This implies working with the families of very young children before they get to school. It implies finding out how to motivate parents to behave differently. What would be a motivation that would work?
We know that many kids will self organize. Ball hockey and skateboarding are being surppressed in the guise of safety and order. Should we not look at the effectiveness of kid organized sport?.
It implies developing strategies to do the really hard stuff of helping people like me to change a habit of no exercise. How could we do this? What are the lessons of smoking and drinking that may help? What is it about schools and the workplace that are barriers and what can we do there to help?
What are the convenience issues? Where are all the places and where is the time? Why do so many schools close their doors and hence gyms and pools after 3pm? Whose school is it anyway? What is the reality of our climate for taking regular exercise where we have 6 months of winter? Can we take back the time between 2.30 when school finishes and say 5.30 when 80 % of parents return home and fill this with a fun time for exercise? Can we fill the 6 weeks of summer vacation when parents are working with a fun time when kids take exercise. Can we make it convenient to nip out for lunch at work and take exercise?