We go to the gym, we squat, do push ups, sweat, sometimes we go for a run or a bike ride. Trainers and coaches spend valuable hours crafting programmes that will get us moving with the right mix and intensity of exercises. We all know that’s good for us because, you know: exercise, right?
But how does exercise make our life better in practical ways? Other than “improving our heart”, “making our metabolism better” or “helping us lose weight”, in which very specific way does a burpee make my life any better?
Wonder no more. Let’s talk about life’s most mundane requirements, and how good exercise practice makes us better at it.
Maybe other than lying down (sleeping), sitting might be how our bodies spend most of their time in modern days. Although seemingly an easy and untaxing task, we’ve all heard about how office desks are killing us (they’re not). Sitting is a natural posture that is part of our life, and although we could do a bit less of it, there’s no more comfortable way to be around a table having dinner with family and friends or driving our cars.
It doesn’t mean sitting is an easy feat. First there’s the act of getting one’s bottom to the desired target, and standing from there once required, which is made much easier with a regular dose of squats, which work the exact same muscles on the way up and down.
Once sitting down, strong abs and a strong back will not go amiss. Without good abs, your body is likely to fold in on itself and squeeze all your internal organs into a cozy mush, so all those sit-ups and planks will help you keep those walls sturdy. Same goes for your upper back – if they’re hunched forward, your lungs and heart get squashed and, because they’re really important for the body, they have very strong clauses in their contract about having ample real state, or else. So to avoid any lawsuits from your own body parts, pulling and overhead work are good lawyers to talk to.
Together with an upper back in a good state, a prime-state lower back will protect your spine, and perhaps even give you some more of it. Movements such as back extensions are good for character building like that.
Sitting sub category: the loo
Good squatting form is paramount when attending to nature’s calls. Toilets are generally slightly lower than common chairs, which means you’ll be squatting to a slight deficit to get in and out of there.
The act of getting your by-product outside of your body requires some power from your abs – not the ones that give you a six pack, but the deep, not-so-charming looking ones that hold your insides in place (transversus abdominis is its name, if you must).
A note of respect to a large section of the population of the world is in order. Although not having experimented with it myself, I’m aware of the practice of “hovering”, for those of us that need to use public toilets but don’t want to sit on them for hygiene reasons. To those, I have one thing to say: quads. Rejoice in your front squats, and be merry. Also, many regions of the world use floor toilets, which require extremely functional mobility, balance and fortitude.
You may never have thought much about it, but walking (and running for that matter) is the art of propelling your body forward a little bit, moving a leg to support it before you fall on your face, and so on in a cycle. This means our hips are in a constant shift of asymmetrical work, balancing you in one side while the other is doing its best to get your leg to where it needs to be.
Your hips are a weird shaped bowl that, together with your abs, keep a whole lot of quaggy stuff in place. Moving your body tends to get those things shifting around (have you ever run with a stomach full of water?), and the stronger your core and hips muscles are, the less sloshy your organs will feel.
We all know how to walk and run, but believe it or not we can do it better. Balancing the weight correctly on your feet makes things efficient, and helps the muscles of your feet do their best work, navigate kerbs and uneven surfaces swiftly, and avoid ankle injuries. For running, using your ankles and legs correctly to propel yourself using your own momentum saves in knee and hip-related bills. Other exercises like squat and lunges, when done properly, engage all the million muscles in your hips and butt that do that careful dance.
Walking sub category: stairs
Stairs are a fascinating apparatus – going up and going down are completely different movement patterns that require much more from your brain and your body than you would imagine. It’s a slight miracle we don’t fall off them more often.
Stepping down the stairs is about balance and absorption, more like little jumps that need to be carefully guided and controlled. Box step-ups and jumps, jumping squats and also normal squats are great friends in this area. Some balance work and rope skipping will also ensure your ankles don’t go into shambles.
If you ever needed a reason to get “A” marks on your lunges, look no further than going up stairs. If you feel like your quads burn after a particularly long staircase climb, it’s because they’re doing pretty much all the work. The power of the lunge to mimic stair climbing is unprecedented in history, and it’s never likely to change.
Long staircases will also likely turn into a cardio exercise, so making sure you’re doing exercise combinations that will get you puffed will not only help with climbing stairs, but with anything that requires your body to do strenuous work for a longer time – chasing after the kids, a jog with the dog, or delivering that 5-minute drum solo like an octopus on a sugar rush.
Picking things up and putting them somewhere else
Bluntly said, if you’re not a builder, or moving boxes or furniture for a living, and unless you want to climb trees or do handstand walks, you probably do not do enough with your upper body to feel like it needs a good workout. But having said that, I’m pretty sure most people of us feel like our arms could be a bit stronger.
It’s not until people have to move houses, or have kids, that they realise why they need upper body strength. Although picking up things from the floor to the hips is mostly a lower-body endeavour (hello deadlifts!), picking things up from hip height, holding them for minutes, moving them across a room to throw them in the bin or putting them in a cabin overhead all require good strength – and I’m talking about toddlers there, boxes and other items are a bit easier.
The mundane examples of upper body work may not occur as often – pushing a heavy fridge across a room, holding a piece of plywood over your head, throwing people across a room for sport. But the benefits of push-ups, pull-ups, overhead presses, dips and general shoulder dumbbell work are really felt in subtle ways as you go about your day. You stand taller, feel less stress building on your neck, feel less pain on your back and can do household chores and computer work without feeling as rough in your body. The health of your back and shoulder muscles can’t really be overstated for overall body health.
But seriously, are burpees good for my heart?
The origins of the burpee is disputed – some said Mr. Royal created it as a fitness test, some say he came up with it as a military exercise so soldiers could get better-er at standing up fast from a belly-on-the-floor position and dash away from the enemy. But either way, burpees are an excellent full body movement. Together with rowing and assault bikes, they are right at the top of the list for building good conditioning and cardio capacity. (Although running and normal biking are EXCELLENT and fun exercises, they don’t tax the whole body as much given a fixed time interval.)
Strength building exercises bring us a plethora of goodness, including (but not limited to) strong bones and increased power efficiency. But life is more than bones and explosive movements.
A more understated aspect of our lives happens inside of us. Hearts go a-pumping, lungs go a-breathing and cells go consuming nutrients. And as hardio as cardio can feel for some of us, no amount of weights will train your body for sustaining long efforts. Very few of us are doing physical feats in our daily life for more than 10 minutes (except when we’re exercising), but giving your heart and lungs some controlled and sustained stress makes you stronger and more powerful, not to mention helping you confidently cruise through life, fall in love, control anxiety for that presentation, get scared watching horror movies or scream your head off when your team scores a try/wicket/touchdown/Quidditch goal.
We all know that exercise is good for us, and we all have our own reasons why we do it. But we also seldom talk about in specific ways about how it actually helps us in our daily life. I’m hoping that understanding that will help you get you through that workout that you really don’t want to do, or appreciate the workouts you love even more.
So next time someone asks you why you work your abs so much, you don’t need to talk about six packs – you have a better number 2 answer that everyone can relate to.