… and other forms of exercise
I’ve been thinking about our journey to Life Two (or, what used to be called retirement). That’s when we’ve created our own paycheck, to (at least partially) replace the one we relied on in our working lives. That’s when we’ll have the freedom to do what we’ve hoped to do, for so many years, in our dream land. It could be hard work, a real grind, getting there. I hope not. I hope the journey there is filled with joy, like the joy of dancing. I think of it all as being like dancing to our dream land! In fact in the early part of the pandemic I drafted a book – which I’m not going to publish; it’s not aimed at any generation in particular – about how to be mentally, physically and financially healthy through all stages of life; and my tentative title was “It’s Like Dancing to my Dream Land!” And the reason why dancing is an appropriate simile is the topic for this blog post.
Dance is about movement. It’s about music and rhythm. There are many forms of dance. You can choose whatever form appeals to you. Traditionally it has been about learning particular movements, particular steps. So at the start it’s something new, and it takes practice: typically about a month to get the initial steps, about two or three months to feel comfortable showing them off to others. But then the movement becomes remembered and natural – and that’s when doing it starts to produce feelings of joy. There’s a sense of achievement. There’s a sense of being able to ignore the basics, which are now automatic, and enjoy the music and moving to a rhythm, sometimes with a partner, sometimes alone – and today it’s possible to dance alone or in a crowd, giving yourself up to the joy of the moment, uplifted both personally and as part of a group who are all feeling the same way.
Dancing also has a number of wonderful side effects. It’s a form of whole-body exercise, so you’re keeping yourself fit: not just your legs and glutes, but also your arms and upper body. Are you the geeky type who likes numbers? Dancing consumes about as many calories as jogging, roughly 130 to 250 calories (depending on the intensity) for every 30 minutes. And it’s not just physical fitness, it also helps mentally as you master different or more intricate movements, helping your creative-thinking patterns. And combining physical, mental and emotional functions is a very healthy experience. Adding social interaction makes it even more fun. It’s a powerful way to bond with a partner and meet other people and share experiences and feel alive.
But perhaps there’s a reason you don’t want to try dancing. You’ve tried it before, too much pressure, you’re shy, introverted – whatever. You know what I’m going to say: try some other form of exercise. What kind?
That’s actually a subtle point. The fact is that we’re not built to exercise! (Does that make you feel better?) Dr Daniel Lieberman reminds us[i] that it’s natural and normal to be physically lazy. Yes! Evolution required humans to do as much, but only as much, exercise as we need to do to survive. For the rest, we conserve energy whenever possible … just in case. Of course, we know (it’s thrown at us all the time) that exercise is essential for good physical and mental health. So the key to resolving this apparent contradiction is to find a form of exercise that you enjoy.
I don’t know what that is, for you. But here are some characteristics of what works for others.
Most important of all, make it social. Doing it alone is always tougher than doing it in a group. Maybe you need to join a group. And by the way, experience suggests that, at any age, you join a group for the activity and stay for the people.
In a carrot-versus-stick context, create carrots for yourself. In the modern world exercise isn’t essential for physical survival, so there’s no natural stick, unless it comes from the shame you feel if you tell someone else you’re going to do something and then don’t. OK, there’s actually another stick: you help your body to avoid the negative effects of a lack of exercise – perfectly true, but it’s tough to be motivated by the absence of something negative.
What carrots, then? Give yourself a reward of some kind. Not a big reward for doing a little exercise – that’s more like cheating. But something serious, like giving yourself points for what you do and then having a set of prizes for different amounts of points. In fact this has been taken further. There used to be a Vitality Active Rewards Program that gave points for healthy behavior, and then those points could gain rewards like movie tickets or free hot drinks or even an Apple watch at a discounted price, the monthly payments for which varied with the level of activity that the watch subsequently tracked. The physical benefit was not only more activity, but more intensive activity – a sort of double benefit. Some forms of this program, I believe, still exist today.
There’s no magic bullet. But see what you can devise for yourself, to get over the natural reluctance to exercise and (even better) make it a source of joy. The thing is, you only need the incentive to get started. When you actually exercise (say, 30 minutes of moderate activity), your body releases endorphins, a feel-good form of brain chemical that reduces your feeling of pain and stress, improves your mood, and increases your sense of wellbeing – which of course endorphins should, as they are the same neurotransmitters released by opioids.
So there it is – whether it’s dancing or some other form of exercise, find one that’s enjoyable, and then not only does it become easier and more habituated over time, it’s great for your health and makes you feel good. Research shows that people who are engaged in dancing or other forms of regular exercise are more satisfied with their lives.
How can you lose?
[Next time: more about some other forms of exercise]
Dancing brings joy as well as physical benefits. That’s a great way to spend part of your journey to Life Two.
[i] Lieberman DE. Is Exercise Really Medicine? An Evolutionary Perspective. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2015 Jul-Aug;14(4):313-9. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0000000000000168. PMID: 26166056.
I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.
Don, thanks. And here I thought that dancing was just something guys did in courtship—and never again. Not only, as you said, is exercise good for our mental and physical well-being, it also positively affects our emotional, spiritual, and as you indicate, our social well-being. However, one of the side-benefits from a good exercise regimen, as a lifestyle choice and commitment, is longevity—in that exercising has been proven to have the potential to extent our lives by 2 years. Now, we can spend those 2 years dancing.
For those of us who aren’t good dancers (you know I’m talking about myself!), I’m doing the exercise and living my added two years somewhat differently!