Monday, November 30, 2009

On Reclaiming Exercise

Americans live in a culture of extremes, a culture of “go-big-or-go-home-push-the-envelope-all-or-nothing-just-do-it-go-faster-higher-stronger-better.” This is one of the reasons so many people still believe that riding a bicycle for exercise equals “workout.”

Every weekend, I see well-meaning people on department store bikes, wearing “workout clothes” and slogging around, huffing and straining in the highest gear possible. This -- because it is hard, because it is the image we associate with exercise -- is the image many people still have about bicycling.

I much prefer the more relaxed idea of “healthy exercise” that was promoted so beautifully by bicycling adverts, catalogues and magazines up until about the 1960s. Any kind of bicycling amounts to exercise, even if it’s slow and relaxed. One of the original benefits of bicycling is that it affords pleasurable, low-impact exercise.

Too many people believe that in order to get exercise, they have to push themselves into a level of discomfort that indicates success. The popular imagery of exercise, as provided by television shows like NBC’s The Biggest Loser, tells us that exercise has to hurt in order to be beneficial. We have to push ourselves to the screaming limit and collapse in a quivering heap before we’ll start to see results.

Likewise, we don’t want to be seen as “half-assed” about our workout (remember the culture of extremes), so we push and push and push. This in turn perpetuates the idea that exercise has to be hard, we have to be fitter, work harder, sweat more, and it turns a lot of people off entirely to the idea of exercise. People see that hard-core image and say “hell, I could never be like that” on the assumption that it’s either that or nothing.

This, of course, is all bosh. I think we’d do a lot better to promote all forms of exercise, bicycling included, as relaxing, fun, low-impact, civilized, and above all, achievable. I lost ten pounds (about as much as I can safely lose) just riding about 8 miles weekly for groceries and errands over four months, plus a bit of relatively low-impact recreational riding. I’m holding steady at the weight I was ten years ago, and I’ve increased my cardiovascular fitness and overall muscle tone as well. And I didn’t scream once.

Image: 1957 Raleigh catalogue at Britain's National Cycling Library.


  1. Many of our friends have repeatedly offered to drive us to the People's Coop and to the beach and elsewhere. And while it has finally dawned on me that usually it is just an excuse to spend time with us, most of the time we have trouble convincing them that we actually enjoy the ride to the coop or the beach or whereever. And now with my new fondness for hills, I'm finding the rides to be extra enjoyable.

    As for weight, my body has decided that my body is ripe for child bearing and so everything is primed for that activity even though I have no intention of going there. So my tiny hips & other body parts from my late teens will never be mine again.

  2. I screamed when I realized I put my BB axle in backwards. Ditto when I got halfway to work before realizing I left my badge at home. Come to think about it, screaming and bikes go together frequently.

  3. We think that cycling is effortful -> we purchase athletic, uncomfortable bikes -> we purchase athletic, uncomfortable clothing -> we go on tedious, high-impact rides -> we are exhausted and unable to repeat the experience for weeks -> moreover, we do not really want to repeat the experience, as it is not pleasurable -> we watch the Biggest Loser on tv instead while eating ice cream out of the carton -> Hmmm...

  4. It has taken me 2 years of daily cycling around to lose 25 lbs and keep it off. It wasn't until the latter half of this year that I found my body changing shape. Even though I cycle an average of 17 miles a day.
    It takes patience to see the long term effects of this kind of exercise. Most people do not know how to pace themselves for it. I know I have been frustrated by how slow a process it is.


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