Sunday, September 2, 2012

The joy of exercise

I've a column in today's Sunday Age, 'The joy of exercise, or why a life lived well means a body worked hard'.

I'm arguing that many public health campaigns miss a vital part of exercise: pleasure. The visceral joy of being a striving body.  A sample:
Clearly not everyone will run, punch or lift like an Olympian. Anyone witnessing my breathless, unco-ordinated bulk plodding up a hill will testify to this. And many have serious physical impairments stifling their efforts. 
But one need not be an elite athlete to enjoy the rewards of intense physical effort. One needs to replicate their outlook, not their achievements: a willingness to bother, when one might equally not. The payoff is not merely endorphins, although it would be foolish to discount the biochemistry of exercise. 
The rewards are also existential: the satisfaction of seeing one's self-conception translated into flesh. It is the runner's easy breath, the boxer's weavings, the rower's rhythms. The heightened feeling of being alive in this body, the only one we have. 
As this suggests, the pleasure of fitness is partly tied up with mortality: awareness of bodily decay, and the impossibility of staving off death. One commits to fitness not to overcome eventual annihilation, but to make the most of one's physical inheritance before it is too late. 
In other words, part of the joy of bodily striving is pride: recognition that one has not wasted an opportunity. An unchallenged body is a squandered chance to transform the world.

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