Saturday, November 27, 2010

What Harley has taught me about play

I've been reading a lot lately about the importance not just of exercise, but of rethinking our largely sedentary lifestyles on a larger scale. I've been feeling the effects of being in a job(s) where I sit in front of a computer most days, and am sensing that some change needs to be made. I'm not talking about a recommitment to getting daily exercise (that's an ongoing effort), but a change in terms of rethinking how I do (or don't) move my body through the world each day.

In Change Your Body, Change the World, Frank Forencich argues that part of the problem is the label we put on exercise. What we really need is not "exercise" but more physical movement.

"The problem with exercise becomes apparent as soon as we begin to describe it. That is, exercise consists of doing abstracted movements in a stereotyped, repetitive pattern. In essence, exercise is a specialization extracted from a larger whole, an activity taken out of its natural context...The main problem with exercise is that it's all about sets, reps and mileage: just keep grinding it out until the clock runs out or your trainer tells you to stop. This, of course, is a recipe for physical monotony. And physical monotony, like any kind of repetitive behavior, tends to be hard on both the mind and tissue...
Exercise also fails because stereotyped reps tend to drive out play. The contrast is clear: exercise is about repeitition of known patterns while play is about exploration and discovery. Exercise is about enduring unpleasant sesation; play is about finding delight in diverse movement forms. Exercise is about repeating the known; play is about extending into the unknown. Exercise requires external motivation to maintain participation; play is inherently rewarding and self-reinforcing." (pp. 54-55)

This has come to life for me when playing with Harley. Our little miss Harley loves nothing in this world more than playtime. She frequently sits at my office door, pleading nonstop with her sweet little cries until I finally get up and indulge her in some play. She is an acrobat at heart, and loves jumping and flinging herself into all sorts of contortions to "catch" the little stuffed "mouse" hanging off the springy end of her stick toy. We go down in the basement, where there's plenty of soft spots to land (important since she often gets so excited she doesn't stick the landing), and Harley starts jumping....on the bed, off the bed doing cartwheels, backflips and less-than-graceful kitten jumps that seem impossibly high for her little body. She will go and go until she literally falls over with fatigue. But give her just a few minutes' rest, and she's right back at it. She just cannot resist that fuzzy excuse to jump!

But as much as she loves to jump, and as much as I'm sure she wishes I would spend most of my day waving the springy toy around for her, she never, ever goes jumping around down there on her own--even though she certainly could. She has to have the springy toy and somene flinging it around for her, to make it fun and therefore of interest. And it's not that she prefers "fun" over "exercise." She simply does not do "exercise" at all -- ever -- in the absence of play.
So I've giving thought to my own ideas about "exercise." For as many years as I ran on a treadmill, I've found no joy in it lately. I'd rather be cold and wet and run outside (preferably running newer, less familiar routes), than warm and dry on a treadmill. There was a time and place for the magic treadmill+TV combo in my life, but right now, I'm needing something different. Even in my cycling life, I've decided to spend money on a cold weather riding jacket rather than a trainer that would let me use my own bike as a stationary bike indoors. (We'll see if I put it to good use this winter, but it feels like a choice in the right direction, in any case.)

This all goes along with the whole natural movement/Cross Fit idea that we don't need to spend time in a gym so much as we need to spend time "playing" outdoors. It's compelling to me right now and it's informing some of the smaller decisions I'm making in trying to incorporate more movement in my life (walking to run some errands instead of seeing those walks as taking "too much time." What am I in such a hurry to get back home for? So I can get back to my chair, back to my desk, back to my computer, back to sitting, just like I've been doing all day?). I've also looked into adjustable desks so that I can spend some of my day standing rather than sitting, for example. But in addition to starting with these small steps, I'm also starting to look at how I might change the bigger picture and trade a largely sedentary daily life (even one in which I get regular exercise) for something that allows me to move more. To be healthier? Sure. To lose a few pounds? Maybe. But mostly just to add some more quality to my everyday freelancer life.

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