Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Need for the New

On a recent long-distance hike, the amazing Andrew Skurka was a favorite topic of conversation for my two travel companions. Skurka is probably best known for his “ultra long-distance” excursions, where he can average over 30 miles a day of hiking for many weeks at a time. Though I have not yet read his book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, what I’ve heard from my friends and seen on his website gives me admiration for the man—not only his physical feats, but his intelligence and sense of adventure.

Andrew Skurka

Despite this admiration, I have no desire to follow in Skurka’s footsteps by attempting ultra long-distance hikes of my own. My recent thirteen days on the trail, though rewarding in many ways, made me realize how important variety is to me when it comes to exercise and physical exploits. Walking an average of 16.5 miles a day made me either unwilling (on lower mileage days) or unable (on the 22+ days) to do any other exercise on the trip, apart from stretching several times a day and some low-key frisbee tossing. When he isn’t on a major hike, Skurka does other physical activity besides walking, including running, biking, and weightlifting. But on the trail, when he’s walking from early in the morning until well into the evening, I imagine he doesn’t squeeze in any extra jogs or calisthenics.

Humans are lucky. Apart from flying, we can move in pretty much any way other creatures in the animal kingdom can. We can’t swim as fast as sailfish, but we can swim. We can’t climb as skillfully as ibex, but we can climb. We can jump, box, crawl, run, lift, pull, push, crouch, skip, bend, and do all manner of other movements—plus all the things equipment, like oars and skates, allow us to do. I won’t say it’s impossible to get bored with exercise—boredom has a way of infecting minds even when there are theoretically loads of interesting things to do—but it is incredible and inspiring how many exercises and exercise combinations there are.

Alpine Ibex Scaling a Dam
(Source: The Guardian)

If I put any credence in astrology, I might conclude that my Gemini sign causes me to value physical variety more than some, as we apparently “get bored very easily.”1 Yet an Elle magazine exercise horoscope advises Gemini to use racquetball to “pound out aggression.”2 So maybe the perfect astrological solution is to play racquetball on a regular basis while mixing it up in between. Boom.

On a more serious note, professor of health and exercise Barbara Bushman remarks, “There are some physiological benefits as well as psychological benefits of having variety in your exercise program.” It “stresses the body in a new and novel way,” which brings desirable results.3 Undoubtedly many readers are already aware of this connection, but it’s worth mentioning. For everyone I know who builds variety into their workouts, I know or have observed about the same number of people who do the same exercise routine week in and week out, even going years without variation. A three-mile jog on the same neighborhood route. Forty-five minutes on the elliptical, speed 8. Tai chi two times a week. Iron-clad regularity might be the only way to maintain a fitness regimen in some cases, so I don’t want to point any fingers. I just can’t imagine not growing bored out of my skull without variety, for one thing, and frustrated with plateaus or diminishing returns, for another.

“Variety is the spice of life”4 may be a tired phrase, but I find it to be true. It’s possible my disinclination to try Skurka-esque journeys will change over time, but for now I will continue to take advantage of the exciting range of exercises my body can perform. Doing so is healthy and fun—why wouldn’t I?

3. Robin Warshaw, “Mixing it Up - Exercise Variety Keeps Your Body Going Strong,” Aug. 22, 2005, accessed June 24, 2013, 
4. Recognized origin: the poet William Cowper (The Task, 1785), not unknown or anonymous as I had guessed.