Obviously, a good exercise programme was always going to be high on my boot camp list of challenges. To prepare for a happy retirement without built-in exercise would just be ridiculous, a denial of all scientific evidence on the subject of aging.
A funny thing happens every time a new research project confirms the power of exercise to improve cognition, physical health, mental health and happiness: lifestyle journalists tend to interpret the results in terms of minimum dosage.
If you just get off your bum now and then, they say, it’ll save your life. Just get on an exercycle for 15 minutes a week. Just walk for 10 minutes a month. Just roll over in bed. They’re assuming that all we want to know is how little exercise we can get away with.
Of course, they may be right about our extremely low ambitions. And it’s true that any exercise, even a few steps per day, is exponentially better than no exercise at all.
However, aiming at the minimum implies that exercise is a tedious chore or a virtual vitamin pill. “Let’s get this over and done with as fast as possible so we can get into the tasty part of the day.”
Don't take exercise like a pill
If you take exercise like a pill, it’s no fun. And if it’s no fun, the habit is not likely to stick. I should know: I’ve been there, done that.
For about five years, an exercycle sat in a corner of my living room. Perfectly positioned for watching TV. Grudgingly, cynically, I intended to use it for just 15 minutes once or twice a week in the evenings. How hard could that be? Not hard enough, it turned out. The ugly beast was as good as new when I sold it on Trademe.
Similarly, a set of weights is lurking amongst my gardening tools. For a couple of months I used them twice a week … then once a week … for just 10 minutes or so each time. They’re getting rusty now.
When it comes to exercise, less is not more: less is less. And very soon, less becomes nothing.
So in my boot camp I intend to shoot for an ideal programme. It’s only a small jump from exercise as a duty to exercise for pleasure. I need more than a sense of righteousness: I have learned that I need immediate gratification too.
I never got any joy from a brief session on the exercycle: it was not an end in itself, because it was boring. It was only the TV-watching that gave me a mild sort of pleasure, and I could get the same ho-hum effect while sitting on a couch.
Exercise as a pleasure
Exercise as a pill is unnatural and I suspect, counter-productive. If you enjoy tennis or golf, for example, you don’t set out to do the minimum. You don’t say to your friends, let’s just have one serve each, or let’s just play two holes. Where’s the fun in that? You play as much as you can, not as little as you can, because you are playing for pleasure. The pleasure of companionship or at least company. The pleasure of muscles squidging, joints loosening, skin glowing, heart pumping, chest expanding, feet steadying, a good shot. No matter what your age, the best exercise brings a quiet sense of power and freedom and satisfaction. Feels good!
Image from "Cycling art, energy and locomotion: a series of remarks on the development of bicycles, tricycles, and man-motor carriages" (1889) by Scott, Robert Pittis. Internet Archive Book Images.