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.

There’s a good Oliver Burkeman piece in the Guardian on gamification, or what Jane McGonigal calls living gamefully: using “the same psychological principles, featuring mini-challenges, systems for winning points, completing quests and moving upwards through levels,” to motivate people to do ordinary real-world stuff like exercise or go to work. Burkeman suggests that gamification “reliably divides people into those energized by it and those utterly appalled,” so I wanted to call myself out as an exception, because I’m both.

First of all, I’m totally in the target audience for this sort of thing. I remember seeing this comic in 2006, back when I was still working a regular job, and finding it spoke deeply to me.

xkcd comic Exercise by Randall Munroe

I bought both Zombies, Run! and Superhero Workout by Six to Start, two games that gamify exercise. I found myself strongly motivated to get out and run, even in winter cold, by the story in Zombies, Run!

More recently, I’ve observed myself strangely motivated by Google Fit. Even though my goal is self-set, and the reward for achieving it is merely a splash of orange lines and a “bling” sound, I have been known to nip out in the late evening to walk another six minutes just to get my walking time for the day up to my 90-minute goal.

I would pay serious money for a more clever version of Google Fit—one that could count not only time and distance walking, running, and bicycling, but also keep track of my crawling, hanging, climbing, jumping, balancing, throwing & catching, lifting & carrying, swimming & diving, and grappling & striking.

On the other hand, I recognize that this is fundamentally an error—the same error I talked about just a few days ago, when I explained that, although it’s in my nature to want to figure out what I need and make a plan to get it, I recognize that it’s a mistake. It’s a mistake because the “figuring it out” step is both impossible (intractably complex) and unnecessary (get ample natural movement and you’ll be fine).

And yet . . . . And yet, it is a fact that my life does not have enough natural movement in it. Given that I’m not going to become a hunter-gatherer (and would probably starve to death in a few months, if I didn’t die sooner from exposure or an accident), perhaps “living gamefully” is useful as a way to motivate myself and to keep track of the exercise I need to replace the movement I’m not getting.

We’ve enjoyed the TV series “Arrow” right from the start, and I’ve been particularly amused this season, when it appears that everyone (except the police captain, and maybe poor Felicity) is now a superhero (or supervillian): All of the Arrow’s team have what amounts to superpowers, Merlin has long had them, and now Thea is all trained up, and her sister Laurel is working on it.

In fact, in the Arrowverse, it seems that anybody can develop superpowers with a fairly short period of intense workouts.

Since back in season one, where one could already see this principle at work with Oliver, I was trying to convince Jackie that we ought to become superheros. She expressed a willingness, although I suspect she was just humoring me. I can’t speak for Jackie, but I so far do not seem to have superpowers. Probably my workouts have not been intense enough.

Anyway, the upshot is that I was an easy sell for Six to Start’s new Superhero Workout game, which was just released for Android. Like their “Zombies, Run!” game that I’ve mentioned several times, it gamifies exercise, and I’m a sucker for that. (Not to mention being a sucker for fictional characters getting into shape.)

So far I’ve just done the tutorial and part of the first storyline workout. But even in that little bit, I was already exercising more intensely than I have been. A few more weeks of this, and I’ll no doubt be besting multiple ninja warriors both unarmed and with swords.