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  • Writer's pictureRyan Allen

Appreciating unstructured exercise activities

In full transparency, I am definitely quite regimented with my exercise routine. Very rarely do I miss a day, and even more rarely do the specifics of the movements, duration, or focuses change. I do this because I do still believe this core structure is important to have in order to optimize the effects of training. That said, I am beginning to appreciate more and more the importance of the gym, or the run, or the standard daily workout not being the only exercise in my life. There are many reasons for this, but among them are that I am not exactly training for anything specific to compete in; I am exercising entirely to live a good life in good health. What I am regularly reminded of now is that pure physical fitness, achieved primarily via that daily routine, is entirely insufficient to physically, neurologically, and even psychologically get the most out of that life I want to live.

Figure: Differences in survival and all-cause mortality among various forms of physical activity, relative to a sedentary lifestyle. Results in favor of sports like tennis, badminton, and soccer over traditional health club activities held consistent, even when adjusted for social factors like education and income. (Schnohr et al., 2018)

This has actually been demonstrated in scientific studies. While of course only associational data are available for this sort of thing, there have been strong correlations found between forms of exercise and the longevity of their participants. The most cited study on this topic is the Copenhagen City Heart Study (CCHS), which found sports like tennis, badminton, and soccer to confer the greatest longevity benefit, even when taking into account potential confounding variables like socioeconomic status of the participants. In last place: health club activities, a.k.a. my daily trip to the gym.

There are multiple hypotheses for these results. One leading theory is that the top sports all still confer a physiological benefit from cardiovascular exercise, of course, but they also involve social interaction. This sense of connection with others is one of the strongest predictors of longevity and health in any period of life, though it is sorely disregarded in modern American society. Psychologically, you are not only getting the enjoyment and fulfillment that comes from this connection with others, but you are pushing aside the physiological difficulties of exercise in your mind. In fact, your brain is even associating this exercise with positive experience and satisfaction because of this, which acts as an incredibly sustainable motivator to continue engaging in this exercise. Contrarily, many engaging in health club activities can struggle to maintain consistency, citing burnout. This all also goes to show why the best advice for sticking to the habit of going to the gym is to get a gym partner, both for the accountability and this interaction.

Additionally, others propose that these best sports for longevity have less in the way of rigid structure, thus requiring elements of adaptability or creativity. This neurological “exercise” is arguably equally important to straight physical training. Indeed, this concept is also supported with data. Many studies, such as those examined in this 2021 review, have examined the impacts of various forms of “play” behavior, such as low-stakes competition, games, or unstructured activities of this nature, on neuroplasticity and development. What they have found is that each time we partake in play of some sort, we are constantly tinkering with the previously established “rule sets” our brain has created. When we try out new things, or “break” a pattern we have defaulted to in the past, we learn, adapt, and explore new possibilities. Early on in life, this is what crafts our social identity; it forges us into who we are as people. After all, our brains become largely associative powerhouses, triggering our knee-jerk reactions to various situational stimuli based on previous experiences (i.e. when you see someone you recognize, you greet them, or when you walk up to a door, you open it, etc.). By the time we develop into adulthood, we have already experimented a good deal with the world around us, and created a decent working understanding of it. However, when we take time to play, or escape our default settings in any way, even in adulthood we can see improvements in creativity, problem-solving, and adaptability.

For me, I have enjoyed incorporating quite a bit of unstructured exercise into my routine lately, usually built around social interaction on the weekends. My favorites as of late have been soccer, Spikeball, pickleball, and flag football. I find myself getting better at each of them and other random activities that pop up, I suspect because of the cross-over in skills required and these adaptive benefits of breadth in exercise and experiences. I also like to solo hike or ruck (hike with added weight). Getting out into nature, without my phone, music, or attention-grabbing things, away from the same backdrop and default settings of my daily life, really does seem to be a catalyst to creativity for me. Virtually every time out on the trail, free to let the mind go wherever it wants, I find myself coming up with at least five good ideas within a couple hours. This might sound like nonsense, but you might be amazed what can happen by just giving your mind a break, and taking time to break down the mental barriers you have established in your life.


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