When I attended Clarion in 2001, Steven Barnes was my week-one instructor. Of course the class was about writing, but Steve talked quite a bit about martial arts in general and Tai Chi in particular—things that were important in his own life and in his own writing.

Although I had been interested in Tai Chi even before that, I didn’t get it together to find a class until 2009. But I managed to find a great class; one that made room for my idiosyncratic movement issues. It quickly became a daily practice that continues to this day. For several years I taught Tai Chi. I’ve retired from teaching it, but I still attend a group practice session in a nearby park several times a week in nice weather. (It’s free. Anyone is welcome. Send me email if you’re local or visiting and are interested in attending.)

All of which is to say that I was very pleased to find that Steven Barnes was teaching three Tai Chi classes at this year’s WorldCon.

Teaching individual Tai Chi classes is a fundamentally peculiar thing. I mean, if you’re trying to learn a Tai Chi form, you can expect to spend a year at it, if you take two or three classes a week. In that context, it’s kind of hard to know what to do with a single class, and the issue actually gets even more fraught if you’re teaching three classes, rather than just one.

Steve threaded the needle by focusing a large part of each class on talking about living well.

I started this post wanting to talk about all the great stuff that Steve covered—about movement and about life. But I hadn’t taken notes, and became somewhat daunted knowing that I’d skip all sorts of important bits. But, given the choice between documenting a few of the bits that stuck with me and documenting nothing, I’ve decided to go with the former.

I would like to emphasize that all these things are colored by my own thinking, so it is virtually certain that Steven Barnes would look at several of these things and go, “Wait a minute! That’s not what I said!” Don’t blame Steve for anything I get wrong. But this is how I remember it:

Purpose of life

On the first day, Steve mentioned that the Dali Lama said the purpose of life was to seek joy and to be of service. Steve used that statement to go on a short rant about being of service—how it’s the real motivation that gets most people out of bed in the morning. “Even if it’s just to feed the cat.” But on the third day he told a story that added some context.

Originally, he said, the Dali Lama said that the purpose of life was to seek joy. But people criticized him, saying that it sounded selfish to say that was the purpose of life. And the Dali Lama pushed back saying, “But as soon as you find joy, you’ll want to share it, and immediately find yourself drawn to be of service.” But people continued to complain, and eventually the Dali Lama conceded to the complaints and added the “and be of service” part.

And I think it’s good to tell the story this way, so that you get the context that “being of service” is an automatic urge, as soon as you find joy. It has certainly been my own experience.

Expertise

People almost always reach a point while learning something, where they perceive themselves as no longer getting better at that thing, even as they continue to train. Different people will keep training for different amounts of time before giving up, but most people eventually give up, before becoming an expert.

That has certainly been my own experience. There must be a hundred things—playing chess, identifying birds, gardening, StarCraft—where I did it enough to get pretty good at it, then found that getting significantly better would be hard work, and didn’t make the effort.

Steve suggested that 100 hours of study or training will give you a passing familiarity with some topic or activity, and 1000 hours gets you good enough to participate in a conversation about some topic with an expert. He also made a passing reference to the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that it takes to develop actual expertise in something, but mentioned in an almost off-hand way the same issues with that idea that I talk about in my post on practice.

Three areas of life

One thing that I remember Steve talking about at Clarion was that he evaluated people as possible models for himself based on whether or not they were succeeding in each of three specific areas:

  • Financial success: Does the person have some sort of career or business that supports them and could support a family at whatever standard of living that person aspires to?
  • Family success: Has the person put together and maintained the sort of family they desire?
  • Physical success: Is the person fit enough and skilled enough to be able to do the things they want to do?

Steve specifically evaluates people on these standards when they offer unsolicited advice. If the person trying to tell him what or how to do or be has all three of these areas under control, then maybe their advice is worth listening to. Otherwise, probably not. (I gather he has a different standard for when he’s the one seeking advice or a service. He probably wouldn’t refuse dental care from a twice-divorced dentist or to fly on a plane just because the pilot was out of shape.)

Pain

When I taught Tai Chi I would begin the first class of each session by telling students that nothing we did in class should hurt. If anything hurt, they should make the move smaller, do a different move, and just wait until we went on to the next move.

Steve had a different perspective. He told students that any pain they felt while training should never go above a level of 3 (on a scale to 10).

I pondered that quite a bit since then, and I think Steve’s perspective makes sense in a way, especially for students who have chronic pain. I never meant to tell my students that they couldn’t take my class if they had pain; just that they shouldn’t do any move that made their pain worse. Another population for whom Steve’s standard probably makes sense is serious athletes or serious martial artists.

Movement

We probably spent half of each class moving, starting with a very nice mobility warm-up. It’s rather a lot like what I’ve taken to calling my morning exercises, but focused on working all your joints through their full range of motion, leaving out the muscle-activation stuff that I’ve added for my own purposes.

The form

Steven taught us the first three moves of his Tai Chi form. The first move was roughly the same as the move called Preparation in the form I do, but Steve emphasized the breathing as the entry point into the move: You inhale, and the movement raises your arms (leading from the tops of the wrists), and then you exhale and your arms fall (leading from the bottoms of the wrists). The second move involved stepping forward, turning your foot, and then pressing forward with your hands facing one another (a move we call “ji” in our style). I’ve already forgotten the third move.

Martial art versus martial science

Steve made a distinction between martial art and martial science. Martial science is figuring out the best way to win a fight or battle. Martial art, like any art, is about expressing yourself, in this case through fighting or battle.

This is something I’ve just come to understand very recently—that the “best” or “most effective” martial art is very context dependent. If you’re going to be fighting a duel—hand-to-hand, with swords, with pistols, whatever—that’s very different from battlefield fighting, where you would find yourself with potentially any number of opponents, along with some number of compatriots.

As an aside, my own observation: Krav maga is an excellent choice of martial art, especially if you have a handful of opponents. It has downsides, especially if you have “opponents” who are not enemies. If your opponents are people that you wouldn’t be comfortable maiming or killing, Brazilian jiu jitsu would be a better choice, but perhaps not if you find yourself surrounded by four or five gang members on the street after dark.

The point Steve was making is that martial arts are only appropriate in the appropriate context. There are many circumstances where “fighting,” and “winning a fight” yields significant benefits, but they’re context dependent. He mentioned an important teacher he had who, upon being asked for instruction regarding the best move for some circumstance, said “You’re a primate. Use a tool.”

Being willing to die

Steve told a story about being bullied in school, about how when he was bullied to the point where he couldn’t take it any more, he crossed to the middle of the nearby busy street. Standing on the yellow line, with traffic zipping past in both directions, he dared the bully to come out there and fight him.

The bully realized that he’d made a mistake.

The line, as I recall it was, “You have to be ready to die, and ready to take him with you.” I think a whole lot of martial culture involves people who have reached that point.

Fighting to stay alive

One thing that got some pushback from one member of the class was the idea that anybody would fight to live: Even someone so depressed as to be suicidal, if you put their head in a bucket of water, would fight to survive. One member of the audience suggested that clinical depression was a matter of brain chemistry, which Steve did not dispute. But the student talking about it said that, when she was at her lowest, if you’d killed her she’d have thought you were doing her a favor. Steve suggested that, even if you’d think that way in the abstract, if you find your head thrust into a bucket of water, you’d do everything you could to to breath.

I have no doubt that Steve was right here. A person suffering from clinical depression might well wonder why they’d fought to hard to survive, but I very much doubt that they’d just breath in water and be glad to pass on, even if they were at the point where they might later that day have chosen to swim into the sea too far to be able to swim back.

Okay.

Those are the bits I remember from Steve’s three Tai Chi classes. There was a lot more—probably other things that were more important than these.

I find myself a little surprised that the “three areas of life” stuff stuck with me the way they did. At Clarion I was doing pretty well in two of them—I had a career in software engineering that provided for my family, and I was in a successful long-term relationship with my wife. But my physicality wasn’t yet on point: I was somewhat fit; I could walk a long ways, I could even run a couple of miles, but I was overweight and unhappy about it.

I’m surprisingly pleased that I’ve managed to get all three under control. That same career lasted long enough (and I boosted my income enough with writing and teaching Tai Chi), that I’m able to support myself on my pension and my investments. I’m still married to the same woman I was married to when I went to Clarion. And since I was in Clarion I lost around fifty pounds while at the same time developing the ability to move in ways that would have been impossible when I was younger.

My Tai Chi practice was important to all those things. Perhaps it seems even more important than it was, because it was my entryway into moving better. Since stepping through that door I’ve explored a wide range of natural-movement practices. During the pandemic I (to an extent) switched back to an exercise- (versus movement-) based paradigm, but really just because exercise suited the circumstances. As the pandemic winds down, I expect I’ll switch back to movement rather than exercise as the focus of what I do.

Looking for a Steven Barnes link to use here I found this post in which he talks about the very classes I was in:

I was very pleased to be able to take another class—three classes!—from Steven Barnes. I enjoyed them, and I learned a lot.

You don’t have to know much about me to know that the latest video from The Bioneer on training for longevity is like catnip for me:

You will not be surprised to learn that the advice comes down to move more, move more diversely, and learn a lot. (Of course, adding diverse complex movements is learning.) But there is also specific useful advice re: power, bone density, tendon strength, etc.

If I’m serious about training to get better at everything—and I am—then I need to think seriously about how to fit in, and recover from, all that training. This post is my first cut at documenting some of my early thinking on how I might do that.

A plan to fit in everything needs to start with eliminating having whole days devoted to just one particular kind of exercise: strength days, running days, etc. Instead, most days will have to have at least two (hopefully complimentary) exercise activities.

I had already started work on thinking about the best ways to combine exercise activities in ways that would reinforce one another, based on the ideas of Adam Sinicki (aka The Bioneer). But more recently the work of Mark Wildman has provided what may be the solution: What he calls “the Tetris of training.” (That’s a link to the first of a series of videos where he talks about program design in those terms.)

The basic idea here is that you divide your workout into pieces: Maybe a kettlebell squat piece, or a single-arm club-swinging piece, maybe a running piece, etc. Then structure each piece as a specific block that can be done in a specific amount of time, and organize those those blocks into a sequence to make a workout that can be done in 30, 60, or 90 minutes (including a warmup at the beginning and a cooldown at the end), and lay those workouts out on a weekly timeline, with appropriate rest days.

Another key part of the idea is that each of those pieces should be its own progressive program, running on its own schedule, but arranged with the others so that they’re not all progressing upward at the same rate.

Me swinging an Adex adjustable club (adjusted to 10 lbs). Here I’ve just caught after an outside circle and have rotated back to center to prepare for the next swing.

This can (and probably should) get pretty fancy, because there are all kinds of considerations. You want to:

  • Cover all the basic movement patterns (walk, run, crawl, lift & carry, climb, throw & catch, etc.)
  • Hit all the large muscles in your body (glutes, quads, hamstrings, pecs, lats, traps, etc.)
  • Work all the basic directions of movement (Roll, Pitch, Yaw, Heave, Sway, Surge)
  • Avoid working the same muscle patterns two days in a row (to allow for recovery)
  • Make sure the important muscle patterns get hit at least twice a week

Besides all that stuff, I particularly want to include some “skills” training, where I’ll work on things like parkour, HEMA, rock climbing, fencing, etc.

I roughed out a plan along these lines, and gave it a try last week and this week. I have a couple of external constraints that I’m working around. One is that I want to be able to join my tai chi group in our Monday/Wednesday/Friday practice sessions. Another is that I want to include time each week for both a long run, and a long hike with Jackie—and both of those activities require flexibility related to the weather. Last week I ditched two of the tai chi sessions, but got in both a hike with Jackie and a long trail run. This week I couldn’t do one tai chi session because of rain, plus I had to take two unscheduled rest days because I tweaked something in my hip.

Today my hip seems to be recovered. I’ve done my heavy club swinging for the day, and I’ve gotten in a long run. Now I need to look at my draft schedule and see how to restart my workout plan, given all my many constraints.

Is it okay for someone who looks like me to seek or follow any sort of indigenous practice? Probably not? When a descendant of colonizers makes use of any indigenous practice it’s very likely to be an act of cultural appropriation. It doesn’t have to be, but to a first approximation, it probably is.

Even so, I find much that I like in various indigenous movement practices, which makes me want to find a way through this ethical thicket. And, I have come up with a couple of ideas.

First of all, my people have our own practices. Genetically I’m descended from people of Northwestern Europe—Scots, Irish, English, and Dutch that I know of. Just going by appearance, I conjecture that Celtic genes dominate.

There’s been an effort to recreate Celtic spiritual practices. I don’t know of any similar effort related to movement practices, but that’s probably just my ignorance. A single on-line search brought me to this page on Celtic martial arts which has a bunch of links to ancient sources, and to sources that are merely old, such as the fencing manuals I’ve become familiar with due to my interest in historical European martial arts. Finding that much so easily makes me imagine there’s probably more out there.

Culturally I’m descended from the broad line of Western culture going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who had very strong movement practices. Interestingly, our movement culture was largely crushed by Christianity just like cultures all over the planet. (The Catholic church believed that any effort to improve the body inevitably distracted from what they viewed as the much more important effort to improve the soul. There’s a nice discussion of this in Daniel Kunitz’s book Lift, which I wrote about here.)

There is a vast body of work on ancient Greek movement culture—ancient sources, translations, compilations, analysis, etc. In his book Natural Born Heroes, Christopher McDougall discusses various aspects at some length. I wrote about that book here.

What started me down this path was discovering Well For Culture, which bills itself as an “Indigenous Wellness Initiative.” Poking around their website I found all sorts of messages that resonate with me. And yet, as I described at the top, I hesitate to simply appropriate their cultural knowledge for my own use.

Which brings me to my second idea, which is that perhaps it’s okay to examine those portions of their cultural knowledge that they choose to make public, and use that knowledge as a lens though which to examine my own cultural traditions. Where there is overlap, I can consider emphasizing those aspects in my own movement practice. Where there is divergence, I can consider whether the differences spring from different histories, different environments, different purposes, or some other source, and let that consideration inform my own practice.

I continue to struggle just a bit with this. Are these indigenous practices being made public with the goal of helping everyone? Or are they being made public—in English, on the internet—because in the modern world other ways of reaching their own people are so limited?

In some cases I’m pretty confident that my use of indigenous knowledge is intended and supported. For example, the tai chi that I have learned and practice used to be held very closely within individual Chinese families, but has for some time been taught much more widely, with the evident goal of sharing those practices with everyone.

As another example, I’ve started exercising with steel clubs, in the tradition of Hindu (and Persian) club-swinging training. Doing this for exercise is a clear case of cultural appropriation: the British colonizers of India brought the practice back to England in the 19th century. Perhaps—hopefully—the cultural appropriation aspect is somewhat mitigated by the fact that clubs (as weapons) were used by every human culture, going back 10,000 years that we know of.

Me with my 15 lb steel club.

I’ve looked quickly to see if there’s any evidence for the use of clubs as a training tool, aside from its use as a weapon, and found that E. Ferdinand Lemaike in 1889, in his book Indian Clubs and How to Use Them, had this to say:

The Greeks and the Romans made great use of them, and gave them a prominent place among their various gymnastic exercises….

Not definitive—he cites no source for his statement—but it at least suggests that people in England thought they were following indigenous practices of their own culture.

He goes on to say:

That the club is the most ancient weapon nobody can deny; it is also the most natural and handy that could be found, and consequently the first used by man, for we find that Cain slew Abel with a club. The ordinary weapon of the athletic god Hercules was a club; and though he also used the bow and arrow, he is always represented with his club.

Although in this post I’m focusing on movement practice in particular, I should mention that Well For Culture emphasizes a more broad-based set of practices intended to produce wellness, including diet, song, ceremony, and much more. That fact makes me all the more inclined to look to my own cultural traditions for analogous practices and teachings.

I am bad at watching somebody move and then doing “the same thing.” This made it very difficult for me to learn any movement-based activity—martial arts, dance, parkour, gymnastics—until I came up with a coping strategy: Generate a verbal description of the move, then do the move by executing my verbal description.

As a coping strategy, this worked great—it’s how I learned my tai chi.

The downside is that it’s very slow. I have seen dancers who can look at new choreography and copy it so fast you can scarcely tell that it’s new, rather than something that’s been practiced hundreds of times. By contrast, I take almost forever to learn something like that.

First, I have to watch the move repeatedly, so I can begin to construct my verbal description. Then, once I have a framework for how it goes, I need to watch it repeatedly again so I can notice specific details and add them to the verbal description. Only then can I even begin to practice the move myself. Then I need to watch the move repeatedly yet again (now while trying to do it), because only then can I begin to compare what I’m doing to what the instructor is doing, and adjust my verbal description when I notice a discrepancy.

I end up with something like this (one instance of the tai chi move “step back and whirl arms”):

  1. Shift your weight to the left foot
  2. Turn your right foot in 4 or 5 degrees
  3. Shift your weight to the right foot and close your step to the right
  4. Step back with the left foot into santi position
  5. Keep your left arm coming back, and your weight coming back until your arm is all the way back and all your weight is on your left foot
  6. Step to the side with your right foot, so your right foot is even with and parallel with the left
  7. Do a toe pivot with the right foot, to get it out of the way
  8. Do a heel pivot with the left foot so that it is in the right position for santi on the other side
  9. Step back on the right

Note that the whole thing depends on having previously established a bit of vocabulary—toe pivots, heel pivots, close step, and of course, santi position.

As I say, the downside is that it’s very slow. There is a countervailing upside, which is that by the time I have learned a move I have already pre-generated a verbal description of the move to use when I want to teach the move. Essentially, I already have the instructions for every tai chi move in my head. I run through them silently as I execute the move anyway. About all I do that’s different when I teach the move is say the instructions out loud. (I use the first few classes to establish the vocabulary—teaching toe pivots, heel pivots, santi position, etc.)

I realized a while ago that the fact that I need to learn this way was probably why I’ve been finding Mark Wildman’s movement skills videos so compelling: He was already creating these verbal descriptions for me, saving me a bunch of time and effort. But it was only today, after having watched probably two hundred of his videos, that I came upon this one, in which he advocates for the students to repeat the descriptions of the moves aloud as they practice them:

Mark Wildman video on narrating your moves.

This is probably a great idea. It’s not one that I would have tried to impose on my students, but I think I’m going to start doing this myself, to remind myself of how a move goes as I practice it.

Whether I’m trying to “get enough exercise” (as I tried to do for years), or trying to “fill my days with movement” (which I’ve realized is a much better way to think about my physical activity), training has been a constant. As someone who has only rarely trained as part of a group, or had a teacher or coach, a lot of my training has been solo training.

Often my focus was on endurance training: preparing for very long walks, foot races, or a 100-mile bike ride. I also did strength training. And my training often included skill training—Tai Chi, parkour, tennis (long ago), even fencing (one brief term in college).

Training by yourself is hard. It’s hard to motivate yourself to go out and do it, and it’s hard to push yourself enough to make good progress (and if you’re good at pushing yourself, it’s hard to know when to take time to recover instead). For skills-based training, it’s hard to learn those skills without a teacher or coach. And for activities with any sort of competitive element, such as tennis or fencing, it’s especially hard to train without a partner. This has been particularly acute during the pandemic, but really it’s always true.

And here is where Guy Windor’s new book The Windsor Method: The Principles of Solo Training comes in.

A lot of the specific information in the book is stuff I’ve figured out myself over the years: Some training is just about impossible to do without a teacher (learning your first Tai Chi form) or a partner (practicing return of serve in tennis). But for most activities, that fraction of the training will be much less than half of your training. Much of the rest of your training is either easy to do by yourself (strength and endurance training), or at least possible to do by yourself once you’ve learned the skill well enough to be able to evaluate your own performance (practicing a Tai Chi form, for example).

The key is to spend some time figuring out the entire scope of your training activities, and then think deeply about what category each activity falls into.

To the extent that your access to a teacher, coach, or partner is limited (as during a pandemic), emphasize the things that are easy to train solo (such as strength training and endurance training), then judiciously add those parts of the training that are advantaged by (or require) a teacher or partner as they are available.

What Guy Windsor adds to this sort of intuitive structuring of training is, as the title suggests, a method. He has systematized the structure in a way that makes the decision-making parts of the activity easier to do and easier to get right.

Perhaps even more important than that, he has taken a step back to talk about all the parts of training that aren’t just skills training for your particular activity. That other stuff—sleep, healthy eating, breathing, mobility, flexibility, strength training, endurance training, etc.—are actually more important than this or that skill, while at the same time being the bits that are easiest to train solo. If you’re stuck for a year with no partner, no teacher, and no coach, but you spend that year focusing on health and general physical preparedness, you’ll scarcely fall behind at all, and make yourself ready to jump into your skills training with both feet once that’s possible again.

I should mention that Guy Windsor’s book was written with practitioners of historical European martial arts especially in mind, but that scarcely matters. It is entirely applicable not only to practitioners of any other martial art, it is entirely relevant to literally anyone who trains in anything.

And, since many of my readers are fiction writers, I should also mention another of Guy Windsor’s books Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers, and Martial Artists. When I signed up for his email list, he offered it as a free download for people who did so.

Being forced into purely solo training for 18 months has made me keenly aware of the many opportunities for non-solo training available here locally. There’s a local fencing club that I’ve had my eye on for some time, and our financial situation is such that now we could afford for me to join and buy fencing gear. Just today I searched for and found a local historical European martial arts club on campus—I’ve asked to be added to their Facebook group and joined their Discord. One of my Tai Chi students teaches an Aikido class with the Urbana Park District—I had started studying with him right as the pandemic began and got in two classes before everything was canceled. And, not sword-related, but cool and great training, is indoor rock climbing at Urbana Boulders.

Just as soon as the pandemic lets up for real, I’ll be doing some of those things.

In the meantime, I’m going over my solo training regimen, taking advantage of the insights that Guy Windsor provides in The Windsor Method: The Principles of Solo Training to figure out what adjustments I should make.

I’ve long struggled to program my training, a task that is difficult because I want to get better at everything. I want to be stronger and faster. I want to have more endurance for running and more endurance for walking (which turn out not to carry over perfectly from one to the other). I want to maintain and deepen my taiji practice and my parkour practice. I want to learn rock climbing and fencing.

This isn’t a new problem for me. As just one example, back in 2013 I was considering programming training not organized by the week but perhaps in 9-day training cycles.

There are at least two problems that I’m trying to address. One is just fitting in training for each capability I want to get better at. The other is how to not break down under that training load (which involves at least fitting in enough recovery time, but other stuff as well).

During the pandemic I’ve done okay, by focusing on exercise. Although I tweak things pretty often, very roughly I’ve organized each week to include:

  • 3 strength training workouts
  • 2 runs (a “long” run and a “fast” run)
  • 1 HIIT workout
  • 2 rest days

That looks pretty good until you do the math and see that it only works for 8-day weeks.

Besides that, note that this excludes my taiji practice (which amounted to more than 5 hours a week back in pre-pandemic days, because besides teaching I was engaging in my own practice). It also excludes my long, slow warmups (which I’ve started calling my “morning exercises,” since I do them pretty much every morning before proceeding with my “workout” for the day).

The way I’ve been making it sort-of work is by doubling up how I think about some of the workouts. A “fast” run with sprint intervals is a HIIT workout, and a HIIT workout with kettlebell swings is a strength-training session.

Still, there’s no hope to make something like this work if I want to add in parkour, rock climbing, and fencing. Likewise, I know from experience that I need a full day to recover from a very long (14-mile or longer) walk, so doing one of those requires devoting two days out of the week to just one training session.

So, I’m left in a quandary. How can I get better at all the things I already do and add in some additional activities as well? (Just before the pandemic I’d started taking an aikido class; I’m sure I’d enjoy finding a local group that plays Ultimate Frisbee….)

Happily for me, Adam Sinicki (aka The Bioneer) has written a book that addresses exactly this issue. The book is Functional Training and Beyond: Building the Ultimate Superfunctional Body and Mind. It starts out talking about “functional training,” and about the history of “getting in shape” i.e. “physical culture.” Then it runs though all the most common training modalities (bodybuilding, powerlifting, kettlebells, crossfit, etc.), before proceeding to talk specifically about how to take the best from each one, and then how to program it all into a workout plan.

His thinking on programming is pretty straightforward: You don’t just add everything together. Rather, you look through all the exercises you might do and pick the ones with the most cross-over benefit relevant to your goals, and then build an exercise program out of those (and you sequence them correctly to maximize your gains in terms of strength, mobility, flexibility, skills acquisition, speed, power, hypertrophy, etc.).

I’m going to spend some time (and some blog posts here) thinking over just how I want to do that.

A fascinating article! For a movement geek like me, a veritable rabbit warren of links to follow.

“the origins of today’s self-care industry are deeply embedded in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s, in underserved communities across the country.”

Source: The Radical History of Self-Care | Teen Vogue

A few years ago I made a shift in my thinking about fitness—a shift from trying to get enough exercise to trying to fill my days with movement. I haven’t changed my mind about that being the right way to go, but this year, especially since the pandemic started, has seen me step back into exercise mode.

I still think movement trumps exercise. But during a pandemic the advantages of exercise have aligned better with my needs and my circumstances. (I’ve written previously about how our fitness room was closed and how I switched to working out with gymnastics rings instead.)

I have to say that it has turned out pretty well for me this year.

One thing about exercise is that it gives you a bunch of metrics you can track, and on the metrics I’ve done pretty well. At the beginning of the year I could do 3 pushups and now I can do 4 sets of 12. At the beginning of the year I could do zero pull ups, and now I can do a set of 3 followed by 2 sets of 2.

Having the metrics is great for someone like me who’s a big ol’ nerd about tracking that sort of data, but it’s not just a matter of numbers. Those bigger numbers correspond to real-world capabilities. I’m definitely stronger than I was at the beginning of the year, in all kinds of ways. I’m also leaner. (I have more muscle, plus I let myself lose about 5 pounds in a so-far vain effort to be able to see the abs I’ve built.)

A lot of my fitness goals are related to attaining and maintaining specific capabilities. I want to be able to:

  • Pick something heavy up off the ground
  • Take something heavy off a high shelf and lower it safely
  • Clamber on top of a wall
  • Jump down from a wall
  • Jump over a ditch
  • Run away from danger (or toward someone in need of help)

That’s not a comprehensive list; merely a brief sketch of the sort of things I want to be able to do.

Even a quick glance makes it clear that many of them are skill-based activities. I’ve worked on some of them before (click through the parkour tag to see six or seven years worth of reports about my efforts in those directions), but I felt that my efforts were limited by a lack of strength. That probably wasn’t even really true—parkour is scalable—but to the extent that it was true, it’s much less true now.

The way to get better at a skill-based activity is to practice it. And most of that practice should not be practicing whole activities, but rather individual pieces of them.

There’s a word that means practicing all the individual bits that go together to make a larger move: training—something that’s been really hard to do during the pandemic.

The real reason I’ve switched to exercise is that during the pandemic, although I’ve been able to move, my opportunities to train have been limited.

I’m hoping to spend the summer training. I’m thinking parkour, but if I can’t get it together to do that, maybe I’ll go with rock climbing. (Indoor climbing would be a great winter activity, if the vaccines roll out fast enough that I feel like it’s already safe to engage in indoor activity before summer weather. But there’s no rule against indoor climbing during the summer either.)

It’s possible to do parkour training during the winter, as long as it isn’t too icy. I tend not to get out in the cold or wet to do so, but I’m working on overcoming that—with some success: I’ve been doing pretty well at getting out for runs, even during chilly/damp fall weather. But I’m at the point where I could really use some instruction in parkour, and that’s out-of-bounds during the pandemic.

In the meantime, I’ll go on doing my exercise, figuring it’s the best way to get myself ready for training, once circumstances align.

Jackie attended the annual Illinois Master Naturalist’s conference last week, and came away with any number of interesting tidbits, but one in particular stuck with me: Forest bathing is like ergonomics.

Both Jackie and I have had our understanding of ergonomics informed by Katy Bowman, who points out:

Modern ergonomics is not the scientific pursuit of what is best for the human body, but the scientific pursuit of how the human body can be positioned (in one position, for eight or more hours at a time) for the purpose of returning to work the next day, and then the next and the next and the next.

Don’t Just Sit There by Katy Bowman; excerpt.

What Jackie learned at her conference was that the Japanese concept of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) has roots in the same idea. When Japanese salarymen started dying from overwork, a lack of exposure to nature was put forward as a partial explanation.

If the problem is a lack of exposure to nature, then immersing yourself in nature is an obvious solution. But, of course, actually immersing yourself in nature would take too much time out of the workday. Hence the research into forest bathing is all about finding the minimum effective dose. There is little or no research into figuring out the optimum time for humans to spend in nature.

Keep that in mind when you read yet another article about how just looking at a forest scene for 20 minutes reduces salivary cortisol 13.4%, or walking in the woods for just 40 minutes improves mood and boosts feelings of health and robustness.

I’m not so much interested in the answer to the question, “What’s the least number of minutes I can spend in nature and not die early from overwork?”

I’m more interested in questions like:

  • If I go for a walk in the prairie, is that as good as going for a walk in the woods? Do I get added benefits if I divide my time between them?
  • Is doing my workout under a tree in a nicely mowed lawn as good as doing it in the woods?
  • Is running past a cornfield or soybean field nearly as good as running down a forest path? How about running past a row of osage orange trees? A suburban lawn? Between two suburban lawns on the other sides of 6-foot privacy fences?
  • If I can’t get to an actual natural area, how should I choose among possibilities like a park, an arboretum, a formal garden, a managed forest, or an unmanaged thicket? How do various water features (lake, stream, creek, natural pond, detention pond, drainage ditch, etc.) affect the benefits?
  • Is just sitting on a concrete patio outdoors better than sitting indoors?

I have my own tentative answers to many of these questions, but very little data.