An off-the-cuff home workout circuit during a period of dismal weather led me to ponder the history of the modern gym and where movement and fitness went awry. There are really just four simple things you need to do to stay fit, and none of them involve fancy gear or a gym.
Before I dive in, let me set the stage a little for you.
If you've been following me for even a short time, you'll know that I'm a big fan of walking. I walk a lot! I even took a course on walking not that long ago to up my walking game and ensure that I will continue walking for many years to come. So given that, you probably won't be surprised when I say that if something gets in the way of my walking routine (like violently bad weather), I get a little agitated. And by that, I mean downright grumpy.
On this particularly blustery, cold, rainy, yucky evening, I had planned on getting out to do at least 5,000 more steps (not that I obsess over the number) but I had already had my day’s fill of wind and rain. So, I took a deep breath and turned that agitation into creativity.
Home walking circuit
My home is not big, but I decided that I would see how many steps I could do around my living space before I got bored. I started my circuit in the kitchen. Then I looped the living room and around the dining table. Then up the stairs to the TV room, around the bedroom, back down the stairs to my office, through the “movement room” and back up to the kitchen. I was saddened to find that it was not quite 160 steps. Not great. But I decided I would still do a few more loops. After all, a few hundred steps are without a doubt better than no steps.
I know I sound like a crazy person when I say that it was one of the most fun "walks" that I've had in a long time.
Then, things started to get interesting when I realized I was walking right under my pull-up bar with each lap. So, I decided to do five pull-ups each time I went under it. Then I noticed that the bedroom has a big empty piece of carpet between the bed and the door, which is perfect for some push-ups. So, you guessed it, I did 10 push-ups every time I hit that spot.
Now I was cooking! I was inspired to find more ways to expand this circuit, so I opened up the door to the garage and added that to the loop. I also included a few extra steps by adding the bathroom to my circuit. Since the bathroom is small and wasn't adding much step-wise, I decided to do 10 bodyweight squats in there.
I know I sound like a crazy person when I say that it was one of the most fun "walks" that I've had in a long time. I definitely hit my 5,000 step count, plus I did probably 50 pull-ups and at least 100 push-ups and squats. Talk about getting a great workout—in my home, in my regular clothes—with only a pull-up bar as gear!
Why we should ditch the all-or-nothing thinking
Later that night, I was chatting with a friend and I told him what I'd done. He suggested that I write an article and do a podcast episode about it. He was inspired by my creativity, impressed with my refusal to let the weather rob me of my fun, and encouraged to embrace this mindset for himself.
What mindset is that? The one that shuns the all-or-nothing behavior we often encounter in today’s extreme diet and fitness world.
I believe in the importance of living an active lifestyle.
I have written before, in an article called Covid Couch Potato? Stay Active with 'Movement Snacks', that too many people still are of the mind that a gym, club, or studio is the best (and perhaps the only) way to get physical movement into their day. Not true!
Again, if you have been following me for any amount of time, you know I believe in the importance of living an active lifestyle. Spending some time in a gym or at a fitness class is great (when it's safe to do so), but it should take a backseat to making regular, easy-to-incorporate movement a part of your daily life.
The great thing about this is how adaptable it can be. All you have to do is fill in the blanks on the sentence "So what if I don’t ____? I can still ___."
- So what if I don’t have time to do a 45-minute online yoga class? I can still do some piggy-back squats while I play with the kids.
- So what if I don’t have a set of weights to work out with? I can still do a pelvis lift and lower movement while I prep dinner.
- So what if I don’t enjoy doing bench press? I can still do push-ups in the park (maybe in a parka and mittens).
- So what if I don’t want to buy an expensive piece of cardio equipment? I can still do shoulder tap crab kicks in the kitchen.
- So what if I don’t have access to a fitness facility? I can still do some surprise parkour in the grocery store parking lot.
If you click on any of the links above you will see actual friends of mine doing the activities mentioned. I encourage you to click and be inspired!
My point is that instead of being disappointed and rigid about what you consider to be a workout, being enthusiastic and flexible about the movement you can do. Right now. Where you are. With what you have available.
A short history of the gym
I am not a historian by any means, but a few online searches told me that it was only in 1939 that Jack LaLanne (the old-timey fitness legend) opened what is heralded as the first health club in Oakland, California. At the time, these clubs were mostly dingy, dusty, cellar-like places with a boxing ring, a heavy bag, and a few rusty iron weights strewn around the area. This is where (predominantly) men lifted weights or trained for particular sports (not the pursuit of picturesque abs and pecs).
The actual birth of what we now call gyms didn’t happen until the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, it was arguably Gold’s Gym in 1965 that signaled the beginning of this whacky modern idea that general health and fitness should be created (or re-created) in an artificial setting. Before then, we stayed fit by performing the manual labor that life necessitated.
Why are we all so scared to simply move our bodies on our own without any guidance or gear?
It was in 1977 that a larger portion of the population was slowly introduced to the idea that gyms were a place that you could go to “get fit.” But gyms still didn’t really catch on until the 1980s. I was 6-years-old in 1977, and I didn’t step foot into what we'd call a gym until the late 80s or early 90s. And yet, many of my contemporaries still hold the idea that they can’t get fit if they can’t get to, don’t like, or can’t afford the gym.
Huh. That shift in thinking didn’t take long, did it?
The same is true for the gear we associate with getting fit. And I'm not even talking about things like Peleton (which only became popular in the last two years). Fancy cushioned running shoes, with arch support and built-up heels, actually came into existence after gyms did (in the mid-1980s).
So, why are we all so scared to simply move our bodies on our own without any guidance or special gear? How did we become so brainwashed so quickly that we seem to believe we can’t simply move our bodies, in interesting ways, on our own, whenever the mood strikes us?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to see people on social media get excited about my bi-weekly workout videos that you can do at home. But I am also saddened that people felt so lost and desperate without them. I guess I just don’t want to believe that in ~40 short years, our species has become so detached from full-body general movement that we fall to pieces if we can’t attend our weekly BODYPUMP, OrangeTheory, Pure Barre, or Soul Cycle class.
4 simple criteria for getting and staying fit
I challenge all of you who made it through this admittedly long and filthy rant to dig deep into your creative minds, your memories of grade-school gym class, or your basic understanding of how your body feels when you ask it to perform certain actions to see if you can come up with a way to do four simple things:
- Raise your heart rate (a little or a lot)
- Challenge your muscles (a little or a lot)
- Tease your balance and mobility (as much as you feel safe doing)
- Repeat steps one through three consistently
Because that truly is all exercise is. And in the simplest way possible, that is all it takes to get and stay fit.
You can dress it up in technical fabrics and give your workout a fancy name like Foxycise, which would probably be really fun (and there is nothing wrong with that.) But in the end, to get a workout, these four things are all you need to do to bestow upon yourself the fitness you seek.