Human-powered, self-directed, challenging, outside.
We all know that physical activity is good for us. Exercise ain’t all it’s cracked up to be though. It’ll certainly help keep you alive longer, and many people love their workouts, but it’s called a routine for a reason, right? I think there’s a better model, and I’ve come to call it authentic physicality. To get in flow, to feel good, I have to be engaged in AP at least once a day. If I really want to feel great I need to do a double, or stay in AP for more than a couple of hours, and I know I’m really putting awesome in the bank on those rare days when I can get into AP in three or four different ways, for several hours at a time.
Let’s break down what I mean:
First of all, you have to be doing something human powered. If you’re not moving yourself, you’re not really moving. This is part of why I gave up riding motorcycles: it’s super fun, it’s self-directed, challenging, and done outside, but it doesn’t really provide any physical exercise, and it requires using an engine. And – even if you’re moving yourself, if what you’re doing requires external power as an intrinsic part of the activity, it’s not going to be as fulfilling – and it will likely be more expensive and energy intensive. Human-powered activities are also, very simply, simpler. We don’t need any extra complications in our world. Another thing about motorcycles that I realized at some point was that I no longer enjoyed having the machine and all of the process and tools required to keep the machine alive. We pay rent on everything that we own, and especially with machines – our machines own us as much as they require us to maintain them.
I find self-directed activities more interesting. This means figuring it out yourself, for the most part. Having a mentor or a leader is great, but if someone is holding your hand every step of the way, it’s too easy to lose awareness of what is happening and what you are doing. Americans love guided activities. Get a guide if you need one, but don’t just follow; work with the guide, and only as long as you absolutely need to. And then try leading something yourself. We’re all capable of leadership, and it’s far more fulfilling than otherwise.
Note that I mean self-directed, not alone. For mean this usually means doing individual activities like kitesurfing with other people. Climbing falls somewhere in the middle as it’s most often done as a pair activity. Team sports can also require a lot of self-directed activity.
How to use this criterion? I went on a short river rafting trip last year that was human-powered, challenging, outside, and definitely not a ride, but we basically just paddled when the guide told us to paddle. The activity felt good, but I don’t think it fully qualified as authentic physicality.
Doing something that isn’t intrinsically at least somewhat challenging is simply boring. Same if you’re doing something that you’re already so expert at that you can do it with your eyes closed. However, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out in Flow, it doesn’t have to be – in fact, should not be – something so hard that you simply can’t do it. In fact, completing attainable goals, achievable challenges, is a key part of getting into flow. It feels great to level up, and it’s good to do that as often as possible. Progression is great. If you’ve mastered something, find a way to introduce a challenge again, and/or start teaching others (which is itself a challenge).
Being active outside and in the natural environment is so important. Most of us live in cities and we certainly get some benefit from being outside even in urban environments, but nature is far more stimulating and inspiring. As Nassim Taleb writes in Antifragile, “what Mother Nature does is rigorous until proven otherwise; what humans and science do is flawed until proven otherwise.” Another reason, also cited by the same author, is that a “wealth of details leads to inner peace.” We need the fractal detail of natiure to occupy and inspire our minds. So: running on a treadmill in the gym is better than nothing, running outside on the sidewalk is better, but trail running in the woods is far superior and provides multiple benefits to the body and the mind.
A note on “extreme” sports
Some people think of some of the things that I do as extreme sports. I don’t use this term. The word is vague, subjective, relative – and overused. It’s also not relevant – authentic physicality is most often not extreme at all. Most sports that might be called extreme are complicated, required a lot of gear, and can only be done in very specific locations (and this require a lot of engines/fuel).
The back story
I’ve always been highly physical. Although I grew up in the city of San Francisco, my parents were outdoorspeople who took me backpacking for the first time well before I could walk. I was never attracted to team or ball sports much, but I enjoyed hiking, camping, backpacking, climbing, sailing and skateboarding from a young age, and did a lot of those things plus snowboarding, mountain and road biking, windsurfing, surfing, stand-up paddling, snowshoeing and trail running through my 20’s, 30’s and into my 40’s. In recent years my primary sports have been kitesurfing, paragliding, and open-water swimming – and it’s only in recent years that I’ve pursued any sport with enough regularity, dedication and aspiration to feel like anything of an athlete.
As I’ve become more athletic, I’ve stopped doing some things that I used to enjoy: snowboarding, riding motorcycles, sailing boats, river kayaking, CrossFit. As started to think more about why I gravitated towards certain types of activities and away from others, I began to develop the idea of authentic physicality. There are too many activities masquerading as sports that lack one of the key qualities of AP . Hooking yourself into a zip-line might feel challenging for a moment, but it’s not active, not human powered, and not really physically challenging (unless you’re catastrophically unfit). At the end of the day things like zip-lining are rides, not sports, and you won’t get fit or into Flow by taking a ride. I don’t think anyone – not even a child – is really using their time well on a ride.
The easiest and purest way to do authentic physicality is trail running. Other great AP activities are walking, hiking, backpacking, open-water swimming, rock climbing, cycling (especially trail or mountain biking), paragliding, surfing, stand-up paddling, snowshoeing, xc/backcountry skiing, and skateboarding. There are lots more – get out there and let’s hear em!