My fellow Fairbanks blogger Discontinuous Permafrost recently reported that he was ordered by his doctor to “[incorporate] a ‘healthy diet and exercise’ or suffer the consequences down the road.” I felt so sorry for him. Little repulses me more than the prospect of having to “exercise”.
I don’t mean to say that I prefer sloth and reject physical activity. In fact, I prefer walking places to driving, when the places are within reasonable walking distance and when time and weather allow. For more distant destinations, I enjoy bicycling. I even enjoy a long, destination-free ride around Farmers Loop in the summer, when the sun is shining and the warm air can rush past my face. I’d play Ultimate Frisbee too, if I felt there were time.
At this point, those of rational mind may say, “But, Paul, those are exercise!”
Well, yes. But also no.
Walking is a means of reaching destinations. It lets me experience my surroundings at human speeds and to meet other people by chance. While walking, I am able to provide the public sphere with one more pair of eyes that look out for my fellow citizens’ safety, and I provide a human presence that tends to curb others’ public ill behavior.
Bicycling also is a way of reaching destinations. When biking for pleasure, I’m able to enjoy fresh air, the breeze on my face, the calm of my own thoughts, and the exhilaration of speed.
While Ultimate Frisbee gets me nowhere, it is a chance to work (or play) cooperatively with others whom I might not meet otherwise, to laugh, and to make friends.
But exercise is an abstraction. It can take place in the confined solitude of your own home, the open solitude of the woods, or the more crowded solitude of the treadmill at a gym. In itself, exercise is unrelated to environment, to pleasure, or to community. The doctor who prescribes it does not care whether you are picking up trash, meeting neighbors, keeping an eye on the drug dealer down the street, doing your shopping, making friends, or performing a community service. He or she wants you to move your body enough to raise your heart rate by so much, for so long, so often.
Our ability to abstract the notion of exercise from any social utility that physical exertion might serve, and the need to prescribe this abstraction, testify to the fragmentation — the “dis-integration” — of our lives. Now is the time when we work. Now is the time when we socialize. Now is the time when we raise our heart rates. Now is the time when we ingest protein, carbohydrates, and dietary fiber.
To the perfectly rational mind (or the mind that thinks of itself thus), this dis-integrated life makes sense. It is acceptable to live in a single-family home where walking is never required and chance encounters are eliminated, and to work in a job that requires no exertion, provides no pleasure, and keeps the worker physically and socially isolated. The rational souls (they believe) will exercise rational choices to meet all their needs: Now I will drive to a friend’s house for society! Now I will buy nutritious foods online! Now I will raise my heart rate by jogging! And because they meet their needs by choice, they believe they will be happier than those who rely on the vagaries of irrational, unpredictable systems.
Well, maybe some are happier. But I think that, for the most part, this kind of dis-integration only only hurts our mental, physical, and social well-being. Even if possible at all, it’s tremendously difficult to lead a balanced life if you must take responsibility for every element in the balance. It is mentally taxing. There’s not enough time in the day to meet every need if it’s taken separately.
Look with suspicion on any activity that performs only one function, or very few. Take the risk of living in complex systems that leave you more whole. Live, not only with integrity, but with integration.