free and quick fitness! or: where did my get up and go … go?

“Exercise is so boring and repetitive. Maybe if I could take a dance or yoga class, it would be easier to stay in shape.”

“I’d go to the gym to get fit, but I can’t afford it.”

“I don’t have time to work out.”

Like, almost everybody, everywhere.

Guys! Hey guys! Let me tell you a secret: my brain is the biggest junkie in the world.

You’d never know it from glancing at me – paragon of self-control as I am (why is everyone laughing?). It craves fun things – all. The. Time. It likes to be entertained twenty-four hours a day. If something is boring, it will withhold a bunch of awesome chemicals I need to feel good – like dopamine. Since dopamine is key to nearly every awesome feeling ever, this is basically the molecular equivalent of a small child folding her arms, stamping her foot, and pouting – “no, this isn’t fun, why are you doing this. FINE, here’s a song you loathe on repeat for eight hours. Didn’t know you knew ALL the lyrics, did you, punk?

Our wonderful society, thanks to various forms of science, has developed a near-endless repository of entertainment possibilities that are so much easier for our brains to get a fix from than getting up and moving around. What’s even more ridiculous? Some of those activities are among those we wouldn’t normally associate with being entertaining. Ever been bored enough with an assignment at an office job that you decide to “check Facebook”? Well, maybe if your boss sprinkled more dopamine precursor chemicals on top of those TPS reports, you might be more motivated to get them done.

What’s often the case, sadly, is that we’ve made some of the more potent “fixes” easier and easier to obtain. Take the teenage gamer stereotype, for instance – one I have witnessed with my own eyes. School’s out – cripes, what a day. Time to switch on the Xbox. The television goes boom! Crash! Rat-tat-tat-tat! Oh crap, what do you mean the enemy has a predator missile?  The teenage gamer, rushing on adrenaline, takes a pull off a 20 oz. bottle of Mountain Dew (with extra caffeine, natch, and a whopping 77 grams of sugar) and finally gets the game-winning kill for his side. Bam! Reward system activated! YEAAAAH!

I forget. Why is it so difficult to get kids to play outside again?

Speaking of, how about the instance of the harried working mother of three who, on a miraculous weekend, finally gets some time to herself? “I’ve worked enough,” she sighs, and goes shopping instead; then, on the way home, she picks up fast food for dinner, along with a bottle of wine.

Sure, you could get the same amount of reward chemicals from working out – if you did it constantly. No wonder no one has time to stay in shape any more – your brain has discovered far more efficient ways of getting its dopamine on.

Not only that, but fitness is something that is constantly sold to us – sold, not told. You need workout clothes. How about an iPod? Your shoes suck; how do you expect to walk in those, let alone run? Why are you running? Gym memberships are better; our machines are more efficient. No, ours are. You should buy one. Our instructors are offering classes, too, but you need to pay for those separately.

You can see how this might lead to all kinds of creative excuses about not having enough time or money for fitness.

Coming from a poor family (I’m talking four people crammed into a 500-sq-ft apartment kinda po’, occasional homelessness po’), I know what it’s like to fall into a reward-seeking mindset. You’re so busy surviving that you forget you need to live. Cue emotional eating. Sugars! Fats! Salts! How about booze? Booze can be cheap, right? God, I wish my life were better. I could use a cigarette.

I also know that exercise can be free, have effects on dopamine that last way longer than any of the above fixes, and doesn’t throw your body into a self-destructive hate spiral. Here are a few quick, fun, and inexpensive ways to incorporate working out into your life:

1) Just dance.  “But I can’t dance.” Cool! Neither can I! Whether or not you have rhythm or a celebrity dancing partner has no bearing on the fact that you have a body that was designed to move. So, next time there’s a break in your day, even for only five minutes – switch on the radio, close the drapes, tell everyone to leave you alone for a few (whatever it takes!) and get down. Pretend your weird arrhythmic lunges are part of some amazing new interpretive dance that the invisible audience in front of you has paid hundreds of dollars to appreciate. Jump up and down, do some twists and twirls, shake your magnificent buttocks. If you’re breathing hard when the song’s over – success! (Not to mention the obvious benefits of acting like a child for a little while – that’s right, it makes you feel youthful.)

2) Fidget with everything. Remember that annoying guy who always made the tables shake because his knee was bouncing up and down? And he said he couldn’t stop it because it was just the way his body wanted to move? Be that guy.

3) Physicaaaallll challennnnnge! I’ve said it before, but setting even the smallest goals and busting them down like you’re the Kool-Aid Man does wonders for your reward system. You don’t even have to tell anyone. Race yourself to the top of the stairs. See how long it takes you to walk from one place to another, then try to beat that goal. There’s a reason competition winners are so happy, y’know.

4) Free classes for everything online. If you’re reading this, you probably have the Internet in some form. I love free internet classes. While nothing can beat getting one-on-one help from an instructor, the truth is, you can learn a lot on your own. The one I like the most is YogaYak, which is basically a collection of hundreds of free yoga classes. I’d recommend yoga to anyone, personally, but if yoga isn’t your thing, you can punch “free ____ classes online” into YouTube or Google and get a lot of videos to choose from. And while it may not provide all the features of a live class, it’s definitely a start if you’ve been really interested in something for years but never could afford classes. Another great thing about videos is that you can pause them if life interferes. You can’t pause a yogi. (A yogi would probably be quick to point out that they pause themselves, thank you.)

5) Go biking! I’m so predictable sometimes.

Any other suggestions? What do you do for free fun and fitness?

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