I recently took an intense group exercise class that pushed me to the limit, then beyond the limit, then to the point of psychoanalyzing why we do what we do.
I immediately thought about my grandmother. She's an amazingly vibrant and healthy 99 year old who lived through some of the greatest struggles generations after her will never understand--the Great Depression, both World Wars, segregation and civil rights. While all of those events were difficult, they provided insights and wisdom that could only be gained from experiencing it. Because he lived through the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt made the famous statement during his 1933 inauguration "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." And, of course, there's no denying the wisdom that comes from massive losses of life during wars and living through such significant periods of time with social and racial inequities.
So, as I found myself struggling in my high intensity exercise class, I began to think about our generation. The generation that not only seeks struggle, but pays large amount of money for it. And let me be clear that this is not an attempt to point fingers as my moment of clarity came from me participating in the very paid-for struggle of which I speak. In 2013, I ran my first half marathon, for which I paid a hefty sum of money. In 2016, I doubled that to a full marathon, and accordingly increased my expenditure. Now, as I see the intensity of classes offered by many fitness centers, I can't help but wonder--are we, a generation that arguably is experiencing much less struggle than our ancestors, paying for struggle in a subconscious attempt to expedite our gaining of wisdom that we know can only be gained through experience? Do we feel the need to break our bodies down with physical activity so we can feel on the other side of that emotions close to what our ancestors felt after winning their own battles? Have our daily lives become, on the whole, too easy, leaving us to seek the hard in relatively predictable ways, like high intensity interval training? Or, and maybe I should say and/or, do we live in such a highly photographed and shared society that we feel the need to prove something to ourselves and others after hours of scrolling and comparing?
And, more important than the analysis of why, I begin to wonder what this is doing to our overall wellness. While we may feel a logical trend towards the concept of the more vigorous the better, medical literature doesn't always support that. In fact, a 2016 study showed that moderate-intensity aerobic exercise improves insulin sensitivity more than vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise. Similarly, the mental health benefits of exercise do not require lengthy or rigorous workouts. In fact, some studies suggest that squeezing in a brisk walk or 2 on the weekend as many health benefits as a daily workout.
So, if the medical literature doesn't prove a need to maximize exercise intensity, the question remains--why do we continue to push the limits ourselves? Will we all one day reverse this trend and seek the calm and peace of meditation and yoga? Or will we continue to seek levels of exercise intensity that will seem radical to even today's standards? Only time will tell. But, to be honest, my heart and soul would strongly prefer the former.