This is not about me. I want to recommend a book called The Exercise Cure to you. But I’ll tell you this about myself so you know the perspective from which my recommendation is coming: I don’t play sport, never have. I have no interest in watching sport or following a team. Competition in general is unappealing to me. If I’m with a group of people I’d prefer to be eating, drinking or watching a movie with them.
I’m not saying that’s good. Or justifiable. It’s just that for large chunks of my life I’ve thought of myself as a head and heart. The only exercise I did was walking from one place to another, dancing while drinking, sex… That’s it. And because I don’t drink a lot, don’t smoke, am vegetarian and the right weight for my height, I got away with that, health-wise. Sport was something meatheads did. Jogging was something my parents did. I dabbled with occasional tai chi or yoga classes but for the most part I didn’t offer my untroublesome body any attention aside from washing and clothing it.
But here’s the thing: at some point I learned I could exercise — and should exercise — without involving sport or gyms or any of the self-hating language that many physical activities employ. I walked, at first because I liked the feeling of walking, later because we got a dog. I started pilates because everything else failed to help my chronic neck pain (now gone). I went back to yoga classes. Recently I started getting up early and doing a weird combining of exercises while everyone else is asleep. And I wish, so much, that I’d known exercise could be so pleasing and could have helped me during the black periods of my life — during bouts of depression, pain, loneliness, insomnia.
Because Dr Jordan Metzl, the author of The Exercise Cure, is right when he says movement is a cure for many things, physical and mental. (Again, this recommendation is coming from someone who lives in Melbourne and doesn’t have a football team.) Exercise makes you feel better: happier, lighter, calmer, more level. It heals ills. It’s free, customisable, and not doing it will harm you.
Dr Metzl is no starry-eyed flake. He’s a Western-trained doctor and an athlete who knows leukaemia can’t be cured by swimming, and a broken arm will not be fixed by sit-ups. He doesn’t suggest exercise will mend a toxic relationship or improve a bad work situation. But he does say that life in general — one’s health, mental state, and life span — can be improved by exercise. And he argues that some cancers, arthritis, osteoporosis, bowel disease high-blood pressure, inflammation and diabetes respond to exercise as medicine.
He says: ‘We dispense pills for everything… Not stopping to think that these pills have significant side effects. I’m not saying don’t take medicine. I’m saying the most powerful drug across the spectrum is exercise, and we need to start thinking about how we dispense this medicine.’
Further: ‘When you look at the health problems that come from inactivity, I think it’s very fair to say that inactivity is the new smoking. Inactivity carries the same health risks that smoking does. And if I said I don’t want you to smoke because I don’t want you to get sick, you’d buy that argument in a second because you’ve been beaten over the head for the last twenty years with anti-smoking messages. If I said I want you to exercise so you don’t get sick, it’d be a tougher sell because you’re not used to that message. What I’m here to tell you is that the public health questions are very similar.’
I’d add that food is a powerful medicine/toxin too, one that can change your physical and mental state in dramatic ways. But that’s another topic.
The excellent photo above, of dogs in water, is from the site Belfast Poets.