You are an animal. You were born with the ability to chase down prey, to flee creatively, to coordinate attacks, and to thrive in the rainforest and tundra alike. For millennia, your species lived every day as a testament to its rich, diverse, extraordinary gifts for adaptation and brilliant ingenuity.
Chief among those traits is resilience. Humans have defied all logical limitations, marching for days past the point of exhaustion, outsmarting every potential predator, crossing oceans, withstanding elements, and conquering seemingly uninhabitable landscapes. Humans have persisted, despite war, famine, disease, unimaginable loss, and overwhelming disadvantage. Through it all, our species has been driven by deep communal bonds, an unquenchable curiosity, and a resolute refusal to be conquered by fear.
This amazing biological heritage precedes you, and yet you won’t let your son climb a tree because he might fall and hurt himself. You don’t want him to mow the lawn because it’s hot outside.
But this odd, limited worldview isn’t limited to shielding your kids. You’ve decided never to squat because it’s “dangerous,” and instead resigned yourself to treadmill jogging and stair-stepping, because it’s “safe” and “not so awkward.” Not that these choices matter, because you haven’t trained a single day in the past month. You’ve decided that you “don’t like to sweat,” and convinced yourself that “only freaks aren’t overweight after 40.” You tell yourself that “being 30 means you can’t do the things you once could.”
IN ACCEPTING THAT YOUR ATHLETIC AND ACTIVE DAYS ARE OVER, YOU FEED A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY THAT CONCLUDES THIS INSIDIOUS IMMERSION INTO A LIFE NOT FULLY LIVED.
The Traps of Safety and Comfort
We are at a unique point in our biological history. We now live in a world where we no longer have to ensure our own survival. We have orderly governments, astonishing technology, and a billion institutions created to ensure that, regardless of our competency and fitness, we will be able to enjoy the highest standard of living in human history.
In exchange for this security, many have traded their very souls. Like a de-clawed tiger in a zoo, we exist in a bubble of safety and abundance, but at the cost of something deeply essential to our fulfillment. The caged tiger would trade its safety in a moment to be free to roam and hunt; to feel alive chasing prey or protecting its territory.
Likewise, we live a partial life, monotonously doing purposeless work, seeking temporary satisfaction from impulsive sweets and tweets that induce a flurry of dopamine. On the rare occasion that we do move our bodies, we tend to follow the same isolated, regimented, inorganic trends that shape the rest of our world.
I’m not here to advocate for a rejection of modern civilization, nor to demonize comfort or structure. I enjoy our contemporary lifestyle as much as anyone; ordering a book through the magic of my handheld device and having it delivered to my doorstep the next day, or binge-watching college football while indulging in an amount and variety of food that would have been unimaginable only a century ago.
But there is a cost to our dogmatic reverence for comfort, safety, and security above all other things. We should question the limitations we place on our lives, especially when they pertain to our physicality. There is a place for planning, tracking, and analysis, and we should respect injury histories and move well. But occasionally, it’s good to remind ourselves that this moving stuff is all deeply rooted within us.
Let’s break free of our self-imposed domestication, and embrace exercise as a means to enhance our humanness. Explore what you might be physically capable of. You are a human animal, and your biology and psychology expect you to act like one.
Be Fit to Be Useful
Natural Born Heroes tells the amazing story of the Cretan resistance to the Nazi invaders during World War II. Tangent to that story are the methods of Georges Hébert, and his “Natural Method” of training, best summed up by his motto: “Be strong to be useful.” He believed humans should train in a manner that created strength for the movements and requirements of a chaotic world.
We should run, jump, climb, throw, pick things up and carry them, push, pull, and swim. We should wrestle, evade, and explore. All this should be done in as many ways as possible, and in increasingly more creative and masterful manners. Training the physical skills necessary for life will also increase your creative potential. Seek skills and body mastery for a more enjoyable training practice. It’s very rewarding to be able to do something you once couldn’t, and to feel a different relationship with your movement in the world around you. When in doubt, go outside and just breathe in the fresh air.
Play Is Required for Humans of All Ages
Play—anything done purely for its own enjoyment, without expectation—is an essential component of early childhood development. It’s where most learning happens, whether social, emotional, or cognitive. In many respects, children are conducting mini-experiments when they play.
Most people don’t realize that play is just as essential for adults. It grants us emotional depth, relieves anxiety, and creates social bonds. It even allows us to normalize after traumatic experiences. Only within the last century or so has adult play seen a dramatic decrease. Now, we live in a society of athletic voyeurism, where only the elite play sports after high school, and even then, only for another decade.
Sports are not the only avenue for play, but they represent an example of how our world makes adult play more difficult. When was the last time you and your friends played touch football, tag, sand volleyball, or just competed in a funky obstacle course that you set up yourselves? Why did time with friends become so sparse, and so sedentary?
Discomfort and Fun Are Not Mutually Exclusive
Sometimes you have to immerse yourself in discomfort before you experience the beauty of it. Often, we struggle to break out of our comfortable malaise. Forcing yourself to start is the hard part. After five minutes and a sweat is broken, most days you can begin to find a strength of mind that does not obsess on the discomfort.
Persist past initial discomfort, and you’ll often find it becomes far less evident as your enjoyment for activity takes over. Anyone who has ever snowboarded understands this, as the cold quickly becomes an afterthought. Playing in the rain was once a staple of childhood. Now we’re appalled by the idea, and certainly wouldn’t expose our kids to such hazardous conditions. Perhaps discomfort is a limitation we should all explore.
Bad Sleep Does Not Mean a Day on the Couch
As a coach, I am often overly obsessive about every variable, particularly sleep. Certainly, getting a full night’s rest is optimal for performance, and many people suffer from chronically poor sleep habits. That said, obsessive exercisers tend to overdo this sleep obsession. It’s important to remind ourselves that we aren’t training for the Olympics, or about to play a game 7.
Sometimes bad sleep happens, and far too often, I’ve turned this into some terrible personal affliction weighing me down. The night before my RKC certification, I was so amped up that I hardly slept. I worked out very hard for about 10 hours the first day, before another sleepless night, followed by another 10-hour workout day. I was amazed at how good I could feel, training on little sleep. As I faced very challenging physical obstacles, my body persistently kicked out a level of work and focus I wouldn’t have thought possible.
While this is not ideal, it’s empowering to experience the great resiliency your body is capable of. I gained a small sense of understanding for the far tougher generations of the past, like soldiers who did not sleep before battles, where the acuteness of their senses literally meant the difference between life and death. I needed to be reminded that a poor night’s sleep was not the end of the world. You can still get up and be ready for whatever life throws at you.
If you embrace the needs of your animal nature, you will be rewarded. Only when the body and mind are challenged will they be satisfied. Examine the stories you tell yourself about risk, danger, and discomfort. I think you will find that you aren’t so fragile, after all.