Archive for April 2007

Why Do People Quit Exercising?

April 29, 2007

A large nonprofit organization asks me to help them solve a problem. “We can make people sustain exercise for six weeks,” they say, “but after that, they drop out. Why don’t they stay with it?”

Brings to mind a question Tom Robbins asked in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The most important question, he wrote, is, “What makes love stay?”

In the physical fitness industry, the most important question is, “What makes exercisers stay with it?”

Here’s my answer: Love.

By love I do not mean romantic love.

I mean three things:

1) Love of movement itself

2) Love of one’s own body, and

3) Love of other people who join you in movement classes, games, or activities. These are the key motivators for children and adults. It’s what makes exercisers stay with it. The problem with most “exercise programs” is that they’re motivated by hate and fear:

1) hate of fat
2) hate physical appearance
3) hate of self
4) fear of fat
5) fear of physical rejection
6) fear of illness and death.

Hate and fear, while potentially motivational in the short term, are not sufficient to sustain physical fitness. They also lead to conditional results: “If I lose weight, then I’ll be happy. If I don’t, I’ll hate myself.” Compare that thought process to, “If I move, I’ll enjoy myself, celebrate my ability to move, and give my bones and muscles a treat.”

With this approach, the physical consequences – toned muscles, less fat, improved circulation, improved mood, improved self-esteem – serve as their own reward, reinforcing the behavior. Once you love an activity, naturally, you want to stay with it.

So people who learn to love – their bodies, their teammates, and movement itself – are the people who keep moving in ways that restore and strengthen and delight their bodies.

As for what makes love stay? You’ll have to ask Tom Robbins.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

Walking as a Spiritual Path

April 28, 2007

When I lived in California in the eighties, I studied Zen Buddhism with Cheri Huber, author of There Is Nothing Wrong with You and many other books.

We did a lot of sitting, as Buddhists are wont to do. We did some working meditation too — cooking, for instance, while maintaining a silent meditative focus, or trying to.

My favorite part was walking meditation. We’d take slow, deliberate steps around the monastery. The turtle gait gave us a chance to pay attention to everything: our bodies, our breath, our environment, and our seven trillion racing, often ridiculous thoughts.

As an athlete, I learn by doing – by PAR-ticipating, as we say in AAPAR, the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation. So walking meditation offered me a valuable opportunity to observe, understand, and develop compassion for my own body and mind (which is “the point” of Zen training, though purists would say there is no real “point.”)

The labyrinth offers a related form of walking meditation. These ancient mazes are increasingly popular throughout the world, as people look for a way to deepen their spiritual practice through walking.

I’ve tried the plastic kind they sometimes carpet church halls with, but it was difficult for me to put aside my alienation from the plastic long enough to experience any sort of enlightenment (except the awareness that I’m not fond of plastic.)

Then last summer I discovered a labyrinth on Block Island (a ferry ride from mainland Rhode Island,) high on a green hill overlooking the bay. With the view of the ocean and the breeze in my face, that was more conducive to insight, awareness, and peace.

Most mall-walkers and fitness walkers don’t tend to think of their journeys as spiritual ones. But why not?


Try not to let a little plastic – or traffic, or pollution – get in your way. Who knows what enlightenment, peace, or insights one might gain when body and mind are free to roam?

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

Lesson from a Fat Friend

April 25, 2007

Today I learned something from a fat friend. Oh, don’t yell at me. My friend is fat, and she uses that word herself, matter-of-factly. Sometimes (such as when it doesn’t offend your friend) it’s good to call a spade a spade.

My fat friend (let’s call her Eve) takes a water aerobics class “with a bunch of old women.”

Now we have to digress to deal with the word old. It’s not popular these days, but I like it. I like telling the truth. I find it liberating. Spare me the “vital” and “vigorous” and “60 is the new 40” baloney.

In fact, I imagine an Old People’s Rights rally on the Washington Mall in which everyone would chant:

We’re old.
We’re bold.
We’re always too hot
Or too cold.

Anyway. Back to Eve, who is probably immersed in a pool right now, treading water with a bunch of old women wielding Styrofoam “noodles” like swords.

Eve is 51 — and, as I mentioned, fat. She enjoys the weightlessness of water exercise, naturally. If I were lugging an extra 100 pounds around, I’d slip into a pool every chance I got, too.

Great weight-loss technique! Just melt in the water, and you’ll weigh about one-eighth of what you weigh on land!

Unfortunately for Eve and other amphibians, most human activity takes place on land. It’s on land that Eve feels fat.

She doesn’t feel as fat as she looks. She feels fatter. She also feels that her fat is exaggerated by standing, walking, moving.

“Whereas if I stay on the couch, the fat is contained,” she says.

That’s what I learned from her that I hadn’t thought of before.

“If I stay seated, people won’t notice my fat as much,” she said. “There’s a better chance that they’ll see me as a whole person, not just a fat person. It’s when I get up that the fat starts jiggling around. Ask me to participate in some sort of dance or even walk, and I just feel fatter and fatter and fatter.”

Surely not all fat people feel this self-conscious. But I bet many do.

And what a trap! The fatter Eve gets, the fatter she feels, and the fatter she feels, the less likely she is to engage in activities that might help her get fit.

Notice I said, “get fit,” not lose weight. The primary benefit of exercise is not weight loss but fitness. And all of us, even fat people, can be fit. But that’s another story, for another day.

For today: Thanks, Eve, for helping me understand the role of social censure, and self-censure, in resistance to movement. And good for you for changing into the bathing suit and getting in the pool.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

Walking: One Step at a Time, Literally

April 23, 2007

People rarely brag that they’re good walkers. Even athletes tend to think of walking as easy.

Actually it’s a complex process requiring considerable coordination.

As Frank Forencich points out in Exuberant Animal, about eighty percent of time, you’re balancing on one leg or other. Which is why anyone committed to fitness should spend integrate lots of one-legged exercises into their daily routine (lifting weights, for instance, while standing on one leg, or on one leg on a balance board of “bosu” ball. Try it. It’s fun!)

We’re not even really bipeds, Forencich says. We’re basically monopeds.

Laurie Anderson seems to have known this when she wrote the lyrics: “When we’re walking, we’re really falling.” The accomplishment: We catch ourselves, over and over again.

What distinguishes us from apes? Spoken language, you might think. But the most important adaptation in human development was upright walking.

Millions of years before language and culture developed, we stood up.

In this sense, walking connects us to our ancestors & also represents progress: moving forward, one step at a time.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

One Problem with Exercise Programs

April 18, 2007

… Is that they’re called exercise programs. Given a choice between engaging in an exercise program and watching American Idol while eating popcorn, who wouldn’t choose the latter? It’s so much easier.

Exercise sounds like work. And we call it work: We go to work, then we go workout. Except we don’t, most of us. We just go to work, then we go get drunk or eat nachos or hang around the house watching Simon Cowell say mean (albeit true) things to aspiring young singers. And “program” sounds like a regiment, something the military might do.

Thus an exercise program is a form of work, something you “have to” do because you don’t want to get diabetes like your mother or soft around the middle like your father. Something you do (or should do) because it’s good for you, like tofu.

What’s your story? Is it a story of exercise programs started and stopped, tried and failed? Does it involve dusty home exercise equipment, lapsed gym memberships, futile classes, forgotten New Years resolutions – and an ultimate sense of failure, even self-loathing?

This need not continue.

Ditch the exercise program. Learn to dance instead. Remember what it’s like to toss a ball off a chimney and catch it, over and over again, with one hand, then the other, while standing on one foot, or while a friend catches every other rebound. Make up games.

Move because you love to move. Trust me, you do love to move, though you may forget this. Move in ways you love to move, or might love to move, if you gave yourself a chance. Experiment with games, activities, dances, until you discover those ways you love to move, then do those things – in a variety of ways, to keep it fresh and interesting.

Don’t think of it as an exercise program. Think of it as going for a walk, because the moon is full and shining down right there, on your neighborhood!

Think of it as dancing because Lee Ann Womack sings, “If you get a chance to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.”

I hope you dance too. I hope you move – not because it’s good for you, but because it’s who you are. We don’t need more exercise programs. We need more people who are curious about movement, who dare to move, who trust that if they approach movement with a willingness to experiment, they’ll eventually remember what all children know: we were born to move.

Mariah Burton Nelson

American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

Walk Tall

April 16, 2007

At six-two, I’ve always loved Bruce Springsteen’s line, “Walk tall or don’t walk at all.”

But I didn’t really become a walker until about ten years ago, when my partner and I began spending lots of vacation time in Rehoboth, Delaware.

There, you can park your car once, then walk everywhere you need to go: restaurants, shops, and for miles along the beach. We enjoyed the scenery, the fresh air, the conversation, and the endorphin high you get when you walk for hours on end.

When we returned home to northern Virginia, we kept walking: to the video store, to the gym, to restaurants, to the movies, to the Metro, to parks.

Soon, any question, “Shall we go…” was followed by, “Sure – and let’s walk.”

We began to think of walking as a way of life – not only for exercise, but for transportation and socializing – a chance to catch up with each other, think things through together, simply enjoy each other’s company in a healthy environment.

Walking is good for our health. The 20-year Nurses’ Health Study of 72,000 female nurses showed that just half an hour brisk walking a day decreased heart disease risk 30% to 40%.

Other studies show that walking reduces the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, colon cancer, and diabetes. It reduces body fat and helps control body weight. It increases bone density, helping to prevent osteoporosis.

The Surgeon General, the American Heart Association, and the Centers for Disease Control all recommend “moderate to vigorous activity on most days.” People make it complicated, but it’s really not. Walking counts.

In older adults, walking also enhances cognitive ability. It improves flexibility, coordination, and balance — key to reducing the risk of falls. It helps control joint swelling and pain associated with arthritis.

Wait, there’s more! Psychologists at USC and Cal State Long Beach have found walking increases energy level, and the more the merrier: “The more you walk in a day, the more energy you experience.” It also improves mood, reducing anxiety and depression.

No wonder we like it so much!

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

My Body, My Writing: An Introduction

April 10, 2007

I am an athlete. I am a writer. (See bio here)

I know myself two ways: through my physical experience, and through my writing.

I express myself, and connect with others, two ways: through my physical expression (walking, talking, rowing, golfing, climbing, thinking) and through my writing (books, articles, this blog.)

I hope this blog enables me to know myself better, and to communicate with others who care deeply about physical activity, recreation, health, fitness, sports, and the habit of exercise.

Through this blog I hope to share the daily joy of movement. I hope to inspire, and I hope to learn.

We are all athletes. We have all been blessed with bodies.

Bodies in motion stay in motion, and bodies in motion stay healthy happy, hopeful.

Let’s “get a move on” together.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation