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The Brain in the Jar talk

I just put this on Facebook:

“I just gave a talk that was initially titled “Beyond Formal Exercise- developing a healthy lifestyle in young adults”, but the Q&A turned into “Exercising is difficult because adults put up barriers for us”. Really interesting food for thought from a bunch of 15/16 year olds.
I may even blog about it.”

And lo, it has come to pass that I am blogging about it. I have 25 minutes to do this so let’s see what I can squeeze in.

This morning, I gave a talk to 15 students and a few teachers with the following title “Beyond Formal Exercise- developing a healthy lifestyle in young adults”. The scope of that talk is this:

  • Very few children and young adults exercise informally. Fewer green spaces, apartment living, technology, societal norms etc. mean that games of chasing, football, Bulldog and so on are increasingly rare. These exercises do more that keep kids fit they’re also an important part of social development, developing hand-eye coordination, balance, agility and so on.
  • Formal exercise has replaced these to some extent. As a child, we had one sport, possibly 2, which took up 3-4 hours per week. Most other exercise and gaming was done with friends. It’s not unusual for a child to have 5 or 6 scheduled, formal exercise sessions that take up the bulk of his non-school hours midweek. My own children, swim, wrestle, do Jiu Jitsu, and go to athletics. This is not a bad thing.
  • “Youth is wasted on the young”, said Oscar Wilde. “Gyms are wasted in the fit”, said me, this morning. Formal sports and exercise can never be said to be a bad thing, but they seem to do little to help the children who need it most who for any number of reasons cannot attend formal sports. Lack of access, lack of parental support, lack of transport, lack of finances all seem to contribute. These kids miss out on sports and get the double whammy of having little or no informal exercise to contribute to their well being.
  • Finally, the big one. Formal exercise opportunities thin out as you get older. Young, talented players are encouraged to pick a sport. Inclusivity fades as results become more prized. It’s not unusual to see a club that can field 4 full teams at under 12 struggle to fill one under 16 squad each week. Young women get the brunt of it. Sporting opportunities decrease rapidly, and societal pressures discourage women from engaging in certain sports in particular. In my own field of combat sports for example, it’s not unusual for women to be asked “Why?” when they declare that they’re a boxer or fighter.
  • Gyms, while purporting to be bastions of good health, are generally speaking narcissistic playgrounds in which people dress up to play at fitness. There’s no fun in gyms, and for people used to playing sports and being in communities and teams, they can be the very definition of drudgery. Not always, but often. How many people do you know who “used to be” members of gyms versus how many are long-term (over 5 years) members?
  • That last point made 50% of people reading very angry.

Lest you think I’m just describing a problem without posing a solution…

The idea is to encourage 2 ideas.

1. Initiative and personal responsibility.

  • This is your body and your health. There comes a time when you literally have to get on your bike. This bike or your own feet will take you the places you need to go to remain fit and healthy, or to become increasingly better at an activity. Think of something you enjoy, and do it as often as possible.
  • “Joining a gym” is a financial transaction and has as much to do with good health as “Buying a pair of trainers”. Gyms are tools in the right hands, expensive shower facilities in the wrong ones.
  • Educate yourself about your body and how it works.

2. Community and social engagement

  • You don’t have to be good at a sport to enjoy it. You don’t have to be strong to lift weights. You don’t have to be Dan Martin to enjoy going fast on a bike. There are others at your level, above it, and below it. Find them and enjoy playing and doing.
  • Don’t believe what you read- sport is not just about winning. Yes it’s about testing yourself and trying to win, but also community, and friendship. Meeting new ones and forming strong bonds with old ones. These bonds and friendships will keep you coming back, even in a losing streak!
  • If you’re going to join a gym, join a small one. It might cost a little more but your business will mean so much more to the people running it, and in general you’ll find a greater sense of community there.
  • While football and GAA are the main sports in Ireland, don’t fret if they were never your thing. Plenty of sports open up to you as an adult that may not have been available to you before. Once you’re independent (or at least once you’re not as dependent on Mam and Dad to bring you), you can pick from any number of sports and activities that are easily picked up as an adult. Martial Arts (my own sport), Badminton, Running… you name it. You may find a passion for one, and in my experience, passion is almost the same thing as talent.

Now for the feedback I got this morning during the final Q&A. Really interesting stuff.

  • Gyms won’t let you join in some cases until you’re 18, and they cost a lot.
  • Parents won’t agree to let boys lift weights
  • Teams being “closed shops” or “trial only”. This seems to be limited to soccer. I don’t know enough about the organisation of the game to know if this is common, but I do know academy clubs operate a trial only system.
  • Social pressures around diet and nutrition. Some foods are “all bad”, but eating some other healthy foods is seen as “weird”.
  • Missing out on social occasions for games and training. I told them- welcome to forever!
  • Other activities are expensive, particularly when you don’t have your own money and are dependent on parents- some mentioned were climbing, yoga/pilates, cycling, and eh… Zumba. Which brings me to…

We chatted about girls. As with the above, I think girls get the short straw when it comes to exercise. It seems to be that as a young girl you can play everything the guys do, but once you hit 18 you’d better be very good at one thing, or be ready to put on some Lycra and dance around in a studio like a moron with other girls. Now it’s changing, slowly, but the bulk of women’s fitness seems to be based around the following premise:

You place a loud woman at the top of a room, put on some repetitive upbeat music, then every other woman in the room plays a sort of no-catches variation of Simon Says.

You can add props, like steps, rubber bands, even bikes, or different music like Zumba, or Rave-Fit (no, no, that’s a real thing) but the premise remains the same. Dance around in a room playing copycat.

The landscape is changing, but it’s still streets behind the opportunities available to men. As a student dryly commented this morning, “It’s only until we start popping out babies anyway”.

Finally, this is my take home message. It’s a bit strange, and embraces my love of science fiction and Steve Martin movies, but don’t laugh. Or do.

Imagine you are a brain. Nothing else, just a brain. You have all of your current thoughts and intelligence, but that’s it. You’re in a jar, sitting, thinking.
Then one day, someone walks in with a gift. It’s a body. A moving, waving, jumping, balancing, punching, kicking pedaling, diving, running, hopping, headstanding body. How would that feel?

Being sedentary is being a brain with fingers. Typing, gaming, texting. This lifestyle is ever more common. Think of the biomechanical magnificence of the human body, and then use it like someone just gave you the keys to a Lamborghini.

Okay, a little more than 25 minutes. But that’s it. I’d like your feedback if you’re interested in giving it.

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