Body Talk: Unscheduled exercise is still exercise

It often seems that an inescapable truth of being a college student—and perhaps, of being human—is that we need to be sure of where the day will take us. We segment our daily activities into blocks rounded to the nearest fifteen minutes. We leave ourselves barely enough time to breathe as we desperately try to fit a week’s worth of “to dos” into a single 24-hour period. 

Included in this compulsive need to schedule is the practice of scheduling exercise. We all have fairly standard preconceived notions about what “counts” as exercise and what doesn’t. For example, waking up at 5 a.m. to pedal endlessly on a stationary bicycle while watching Food Network? Exercise. Biking to the nearby Walgreens to pick up a friend’s birth control prescription? Not exercise. Taking a five-mile hike up a mountain? Exercise. Walking across campus? Nope. Whether intentionally or not, we define exercise as a health-promoting activity done in a specific place at a predetermined time, preferably involving some degree of pain and suffering. Okay, that last part is unspoken, but undeniably true. 

You might have just read that and thought, “Hey, wait, that isn’t right. Biking to Walgreens counts as exercise!” But in practice, would you record it in a fitness app? Would you brag to friends about how you “worked out?” Probably not. That 15-minute ride doesn’t make the cut. It becomes just a part of your day, paling in importance against your scheduled activities. The duration isn’t long enough, the intensity isn’t high enough, or perhaps it doesn’t count because it did not take place in a gym, on a sports field or along a hiking trail. 

But guess what? Your body doesn’t know the difference. It literally cannot distinguish between trotting along on a treadmill and speed walking to get to your class on the fourth floor of Main. And that grand lie that we’ve been fed, that exercise only “counts” if it is scheduled, is punched full of holes when you consider all of the unplanned but undeniably physical activities you engage in throughout the day. Those Main Hall stairs are steep! 

We even have apps and other gadgets dedicated specifically to reminding ourselves of our physical accomplishments. Fun fact: a walk does not count as a walk on the FitBit app until you hit 11 minutes. So my ten-minute walk to Warch, which I make at least three times a day, doesn’t even register, even though that amounts to over an hour of walking with round trips. Ridiculous.

For some people, scheduled exercise is a fun and exciting part of their lives. Having a plan to follow is better for them than spontaneous activity. And that’s cool if it works for you. However, for many of us, planning out specific times to engage in physical activity can leave us feeling guilt or shame. Guilt for not sticking to a routine when we prioritize something else over moving our bodies, or shame because we perceive ourselves to be worth less as human beings based on our level of physical activity. How awful and counterproductive is that? Movement is supposed to make us feel good, not bring us down. 

Exercise can be an integral and enriching part of our lives; I’m not here to debate that. What I do take issue with is the overinflated importance we place on planning out and tracking every aspect of it. What happens when we can’t sneak in that 45 minutes in the gym? For some people, their whole day is written off as a waste, despite increased productivity in other aspects of their lives. 

Many of us in recovery from an eating disorder or diet culture in general have a history of disordered or compulsive exercising. I often have to analyze my motivation for engaging in physical activity: is this for my health—physical, mental, or social—or is this part of a subconscious desire to conform? Do I actually want to do this activity, or am I doing it because I think I should? For some of us, it is much better for our overall health to take movement as it comes naturally instead of obsessing over how many miles we ran or steps we clocked on a given day.

So, no, you aren’t “just being lazy” if you prefer spontaneous walks with a friend to sweating it out in the cardio room of the Wellness Center. In fact, you do not need to engage in any exercise at all to be a person worthy of basic human decency and respect. But if you find yourself preoccupied with meeting your daily step goal, remember that any movement counts, so you don’t need to.