A Physical Life

On living a physical life – Erase the line

“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”

–        L.P. Jacks, Education Through Recreation, 1932.  

In the same way that one can generally identify a frat house by the presence of empty beer cans in the yard and random Greek letters affixed to the entrance, an easy way to know that a building is occupied by military personnel is that somewhere nearby one will likely find a pullup bar.

Whether on a remote island off the coast of Central America or in front of a training barracks in Coronado or Fort Benning, the pullup bar will be an integral part of daily life. At times it will be mandatory to do a number of pullups or pushups every time one walks past the bar. Other times it’s just something one does because it’s part of who you are.

It’s the same mindset that one would observe with kids who always seem to have a skateboard with them. When they’ve got a spare moment, they’ll often be found repeatedly practicing specific movements or experimenting with new tricks. Playing.

In a physical culture like the military, this play encompasses things that most people would only consider doing when they’re subjecting themselves to “exercise.”

This play serves a purpose. Every repetition further ingrains a pattern of movement, creating more efficient motor engrams and making the movement easier to recall. It’s developing the nervous system. The effectiveness of this process depends significantly on the frequency. It’s been said that true proficiency in a movement requires around ten thousand well executed repetitions before that pattern is available for reflexive recall.

Those ten thousand reps will be much more effectively ingrained when spread out evenly and frequently over time than if they’re piled into occasional heaps every week or two.

Outside of cultures like military special operations, it’s rare to see the integration of the physical into daily routine. As a result, when an office dweller steps into a gym or onto a playing field, he or she is confronted with an almost foreign world. It’s like watching a toddler take his first steps. Everything is new, uncoordinated and novel. Basic motor patterns have not been ingrained and cues which otherwise would occur reflexively, without conscious thought, require significant effort. In this case, there is a distinct divide between the world of physical effort and the person’s regular life.

One thing that crosses this void in civilian life is the presence of home gyms in garages, basements and sometimes people’s living rooms. I’ve got some friends here in Denver who have climbing holds and a finger board bolted to a crossbeam in their living room. They play on it periodically almost every day and these few minutes of physical practice go a long way towards improving their coordination and efficiency on rock climbing trips. The physical world is a part of their daily life; not a separate component of it.

While I was living in South Dakota, I had a squat rack with a pullup bar and some rings hanging from the rafters in my garage. As a break between sessions of writing, I would go out every hour or two and do a few pullups or practice on the rings. Suddenly, knocking out sets of multiple muscle ups on the rings during workouts became easy.

How steep is the divide between your physical life and everything else? Do you define physical activity as exercise and have to put on a special outfit and grab a certain logo-clad water bottle before you can start? If so, why? How did this happen?

What can you do today to reconnect yourself with the physical world?

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