Gentle exercise

'Gentle exercise' is mentioned almost daily in the press and its advocates are everywhere, especially where there is money to be had promoting food, clothing, heart rate monitors, gizmos and services to people who have never exercised since their childhood, who have not yet learned that money and things can't buy them health and fitness if they don't also work at it and work darned hard. 'Gentle exercise' is also one of the most common search terms that brings people to this website. [1]

'Before beginning a program of physical inactivity, see your doctor. Sedentary living is abnormal and dangerous to your health.'
Frank Forencich

Why do people advocate gentle exercise?
Gentle exercise may be preferable to no exercise - sedentism - and may have a useful role in early rehabilitation from illness and injury, especially for restoring balance, motor skills, range of motion and dexterity. Beyond that, those who advocate it should be viewed with suspicion; ask what the motives of the 'gentle exercise' brigade might be. This is not to say there is any need to distrust the gentle exercise advocate; their motivations are often good. What concerns me is that their motivations are not always stated honestly and up front.  Here are some possible motivations:

Gentle exercise is not likely to injure you, so anyone can take it up with little health risk. That is, people without skills, knowledge, training or expertise can promote their own relatively useless money-spinning idea with little chance of their ignorance being found out

Gentle exercise can be advocated as a benign 'thin end of the wedge' to encourage the sedentary subject to start moving, with the hope that the subject will, somehow, progress in some unconscious, non-deliberate, unplanned way to greater health and fitness.

Gentle exercise unimaginable in the Palaeolithic
Gentle exercise is almost impossible to imagine in all but modern societies or in the wealthy leisured elite of historical societies. People have always sought to fulfil their basic needs with the minimum of effort: tools, labour saving devices, compelling others to do the work for you [2] have been the hallmark of 'civilization' - often to the detriment of our health, particularly when they had the power to exploit other people or the environment. 

Here is a thought experiment: If your car has a flat battery and you need to push-start it, do you push it gently? If you need to shift a heavy piece of furniture, do you try to do so gently? If you have purchased a little more shopping than usual and decide you will try to carry it without assistance, do you exert yourself gently, or do you brace yourself and give it your best shot? If you are accosted by a thug in a dark carpark, do you assume that a gentle response will always be the best way out of this tight corner? In all cases, 'gentle' won't cut it. Strenuous work requires non-gentle effort or a device to magnify your power or strength.

The same applies to physical work in prehistoric or hunter-gatherer times: if an activity was demanding, you threw your all into it. and if it was not demanding, you often added to it until it became demanding by doing two things at once (minded children while foraging, talked or sang while you prepared a meal, wove a grass bag while you walked to gather fruit, carried twice the load if carrying one was 'gentle' work - to save a second trip) or you passed the task on to someone else who had only a 'gentle' load, leaving you free for complete leisure or to take on more demanding, un-gentle work close to your physical or mental limit.

Gentle exercise is of little benefit in modern times
There will always be occasions when we undertake gentle activity - that's by far the majority of our physical movement. But in order to keep our muscles, our skeleton and - even - our minds (indeed, our whole physiology) in the best possible condition we need to push ourselves out of the comfort zone - to stimulate the muscle to repair and grow [4]. Gentle exercise, when undertaken as more than early rehabilitation, is no more than a comforting delusion for people who fail to understand the way the human body is designed (not only its structure, but its processes) and what is needed to get it to its natural state of good health and to keep it there. [3]

Moving beyond gentle exercise in modern times
Even elderly people and those beginning to increase their level of activity for the first time in many years need to leave 'gentle exercise' behind as soon as possible. This does not mean we all need to exercise in the same way as each other; a woman of 80 should, perhaps, practice balance, getting up off the floor and walking whereas a young man should undertake a different range of exercises. The point for both the older woman and the younger man is that they need to push their own limits for their own purposes.

The older woman could practise balancing on one foot, progressing from brief to longer periods, balancing while holding a cup of water, with eyes closed, while moving to music and so on. She might get up off the floor holding on to furniture, then without holding on to anything, then getting up with a full shopping bag. She might walk inside, then walk outside, then walk up hills and down steps, then walk on uneven surfaces like grass. The important thing is that her activity helps her progress to the next level so she can enjoy independence and a richer life because she can do many more things safely, confidently and enjoyably.

The younger man would, similarly, undertake a progressive range of activities although the things he should do are quite different and more like those illustrated elsewhere on this site.

The principles of progression and pushing to one's own limits apply to everyone.

Notes

1. See note 10 on the definition of exercise in the glossary

2. Or compelling the environment to bear the brunt of the damage your behaviour causes to the biosphere's ecosystem services.

3. Doug McGuff writes "High intensity exercise is necessary to bring about ... metabolic adaptations. ... It's ... possible to perform a type of activity that is of insufficient intensity to bring about the desired metabolic adaptations yet is of sufficient volume to bring about large amounts of tissue destruction. This type of activity is called steady-state, or conventional, "aerobic" exercise. It cannot produce much in the way of metabolic adaptations, and its price is the destruction of [muscle] the most productive and protective tissue of your body." (p 34 in Body by Science, 2009) Back to text

4. Doug McGuff writes "Doctors have routinely told their patients that just performing activities of daily life such as walking, taking the stairs, gardening and yard work can help to preserve cardiovascular health. Unfortunately, the age-related loss of muscle (sarcopenia) can undermine people's ability to carry out these activities, but resistance training can prevent and even reverse sarcopenia." Back to text

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Page updated 30 April 2010