Greetings from Penguicon! The polyphasic sleep panel is tomorrow; today is full of teaching and learning martial arts and other great stuff; in short, I could barely be happier if Buddha showed up and demanded it. ;P
I thought of a great example of something I blather about a lot, on the way here: Defaults. “Setting your defaults” refers to the bones of habit-forming. It’s a pre-negotiation between your will, and your mind and body, where you deliberately dig a rut that makes deciding in a certain direction automatically easier than making other decisions. The example I’m going to use today is exercise, though this technique can be used with anything.
The default is what will get done a huge percentage of the time. We don’t have the capacity to be making every decision from scratch, in the moment; when you’re moving through life at speed, you will naturally do the “default thing” a large chunk of the time. This is why it’s so important to deliberately and correctly set your defaults.
Say you want to, as we mentioned, get more exercise. Many modern societies are very sedentary by default — they ingrain in us the tendency to choose not to move, not to exert ourselves, a huge proportion of the time. It’s important to remember that defaults that YOU don’t set are still set — you just didn’t choose what they’re set TO. If that doesn’t squick you out…well, maybe you should be reading another blog. :) For me personally, I feel confident that my base / initial cultural training is NOT setting defaults in me that I think are the best (or sometimes even acceptable) ones; and so I have a great interest in finding and improving them.
One is definitely exercise. Being sedentary is terrible for your health, and as you get older, it allows your body, your abilities, and your skills to deteriorate at a much faster rate than they would if you kept moving. Our bodies and minds were both designed to move, and moving in a concerted and/or intense way for at least an hour a day is essential to maintaining good physical AND MENTAL health.
So how do you set these defaults, so that you can benefit from an automatic tendency to get enough exercise?
Let me back up just a skosh: I do exercise daily, but hey, I’m a busy person. I may certainly not go to the pool/gym, or take or teach a martial arts class, every single day. But I definitely get an accumulated hour or more of intense exercise every day, simply because my defaults are configured correctly. I’ve done a lot of work in the last decade to become active, strong and healthy, but setting good defaults was THE SINGLE BEST THING I’ve done to make that happen. Seriously, I’m walking around this convention (for barely 24h now) and people are pulling me aside to compliment me on how fit, vital and healthy I seem. I’m getting hit on by people ten years my junior who are obviously attracted to my springiness, speed, and alertness; all of which are born of this work. So here’s the payoff: How I set my exercise defaults.
HOW TO DEFAULT TO EXERCISE
- Travel under your own power. If time allows for either the car or the bike, take the bike. If you can walk it, walk it; if you like to run, run it. Grab the skateboard, the rollerblades, the whatever, every single time that it’s not imperative for some reason that you don’t. Stop thinking of the car as the way you get everywhere. Don’t just assume it’s faster or easier — ASK the Internet for real data on how long it will take to do something self-powered, and take that option whenever you can.
And never, ever take an elevator or escalator if you can take the stairs instead. It doesn’t matter if it’s slower — the time it costs you is negligible in that case. If you are on an escalator or movable walkway, also walk while it’s moving — don’t just stand there passively. Our world is built disturbingly like the Wall-E future in some ways: sitting or standing and letting your body be carried built in is treated as the default “best” option in so, so many places. But fuck that. You WANT to move, so whenever the choice is stand (or sit) vs move, MOVE. Those minutes add up!
- Lift the heavy thing. If there’s a thing that needs moving and you can safely lifted, lift it. Offer to help whenever tables or chairs need to be set up, or someone is carrying boxes. If you think “hmmm, I could clean behind there if I moved the couch,” move the couch. Always lift and move objects when it’s useful and appropriate. Weightlifting is stellar exercise, and so many of us pass up the opportunity tens of times a day.
Note that this (and all the others) apply whether you’re old, sick, a kid, whatever. It’s always best for your health to move as much as you can. Even if all you can do is pick up and put down something light, you’re better off doing that than sitting still. If you want to gain and maintain health, you need to MOVE, and the easiest way to do that is to DEFAULT TO MOVING.
- Say yes to your practice. Your default answer for “should I do my practice?” is YES, DO IT RIGHT NOW. Similarly, the default answer for “Eh, I’m not sure, should I go to class / the gym / for a run / whatever?” is YES, DO IT NOW. The only thing that should prevent you from whatever your physical studies are is some emergency that makes it impossible, that overrides your default. If things are iffy enough that you’re asking the question, the answer is YES.
This default, by the way, is the entire reason I learned taiji. Ten years ago I joined a school, and man, going to class was harrrrrd. It was embarrassing and scary and poked all of my social anxieties right in the face…but I was determined to make it happen. So I told myself early on that “Unless I totally CAN’T, my default behavior is ‘go to class’.” And because I haven’t said it yet, I’ll add here that defaults get easier to execute with time: When you’re just starting, doing that thing you decided you’d always do feels different, and is tricky; but after the 100th time, it’s as easy as any other habit. The hard work is in doing it those first 10, 50, 100 times, when you have to motivate yourself. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’ll always be hard! By a year in, I felt downright crappy and angry if something made me miss my classes, and my studies progressed with pleasing speed as a result.
- Say yes to fun things. “Fun” often involves moving around, which is why you see more young than older people doing it. Many more young people haven’t yet “learned” from our culture to be sedentary, and moving feels good (even if you’ve forgotten that it does), so hey, fun. But if you’re an adult, you’ve probably been trained to not do things that are fun and involve moving: Swimming, dancing, jumping in on an obstacle course, running, jumping and climbing on things…adults tend to neglect these things because being sedentary seems more, well, adult.
Again, F that. Those little fun things are the best parts of exercise: The easy, the different, the pleasurable. Doing squats is good for your legs, but jumping up and down off of chairs or posts is just as good, and totally doesn’t feel like work. Throwing, chasing, climbing, hanging, swinging, running, [**], dancing, splashing in the water…these are all exercise, and though small, if it’s your default to do them, they can easily add up to hundreds of calories burned, and tons of strength, balance and coordination built, every single day. (And let’s not even discuss the other life-benefits of things like “playing frisbee with your dog”, “going swimming with your kids”, “dancing your face off with friends”, or “being the grownup that gets on the jungle-gym”, because they are *myriad.) I certainly have other reasons for having decided that “say yes to the fun things” should be my default, but simply for exercise reasons, it makes plenty of sense.
SET YOUR DEFAULTS — they are getting set anyway; the only question is, are you deciding how?
NEGOTIATE them with yourself, and decide what your unless-something-is-seriously-preventing-it answer is, to “do I take the stairs”, “Do I go to the gym”, “do I get in the pool with the kids”, etc.
LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITIES to get a little bit of what you need, be it exercise, education, contemplation, etc., every time some silly little decision comes up (like “should I take the stairs?”).
Good luck, and enjoy your defaults!
(Seriously, can I get an “I <3 my defaults” bumper sticker?)
(…Oh wait…one of my defaults is to ride my bike over taking the car, and as a result of using that default, I haven’t owned a car for two years…so I guess I don’t need a bumper sticker. It’s probably worth it for being able to cycle 20 miles without getting sore though… :D)
[***] also fucking. I mean, let’s be honest, ok? It’s exercise, it’s fun, and getting accustomed to being sedentary (and by corollary, less comfortable with your body) often gets in the way of people saying “yes” to it. I won’t lie, I’d definitely be less svelte if it weren’t for the exercise I get saying “Hell yes!” to a fun romp or three. :)