Monday, December 9, 2013

A Non-Gift Guide

(Author's Note: A shorter version of this post appears in the Dec. 2013 issue of Fargo-Moorhead Stride magazine.)

Virtually every magazine has holiday gift guides this time of year, and health and fitness magazines are no exception. “The runner on your list will love this fleece pullover!” “For your friend obsessed with bling, there’s a new line of Swarovski resistance bands.” (No, that is not a real product—probably.) Stocking stuffers, fitness gifts for pets, gifts for you, too, because you deserve it—there are products galore to give and receive, whomever you’re shopping for.

I sound cynical, I’m sure. The truth is, I love reading gift guides. I love to give and receive presents, and there are several fitness-related gifts I covet. But I also grow weary of consumerism, even when it is a means to an end like getting in shape. I am not against buying frivolous items from time to time, and I’m certainly not against buying basics. I consider things like a gym membership and quality footwear to be basics, at least for people of a certain income level. Still, the “buy, buy, buy” message we hear every day, in forms blatant and subtle, is a cause of much misery. You’re unhappy if you can’t have that shiny new toy. If you do get the toy, you realize more often than not that it really doesn’t make you happy. But there’s that other shiny new toy...

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To say that you can’t buy intangible things like health, strength, and flexibility is putting things too simplistically, I suppose. You can buy a set of dumbbells that will make you stronger if you use them. You can hire a personal trainer. You can pay a heart surgeon to give you a heart transplant. And so on. You can give these things to others as gifts, too. But there are some things money really can’t buy, things that will never be on anyone’s Ultimate Gift Guide or list of 10 Frugal but Fabulous Secret Santa Presents. For the sake of fitting in, let’s give them their own list.

The Little Mouse Non-Gift Guide: Four Fitness Benefits You Just Can’t Buy

1. Muscle tone. It is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve overall muscle tone without exercise. Taking anabolic steroids might help a bit, but they provide negligible benefits if you don’t also exercise while taking them. Also, the side effects are horrifying. Also, they’re illegal. Then there’s the Shake Weight. Though I’m unqualified to evaluate the company’s claim of “scientifically proven results,” I can point out that it’s designed to tone the upper body only. Exercise is the clear winner here.

2. Resting heart rate. The Mayo Clinic website points out that in addition to fitness level, several other factors can affect your heart rate, including medications and body position. Stress reduction techniques and weight loss through diet can improve your resting heart weight, too, so exercise is not the only solution. But many sources agree that cardiovascular exercise is the best way to lower your resting heart rate. Even if you achieve this by adding meditation and dropping medications, for instance, you can’t buy any of these other methods either.

3. A sense of accomplishment. I am in the mood to keep playing devil’s advocate, so let’s acknowledge that some people can buy something like a sense of accomplishment relating to fitness. For instance, you could feel like you’ve accomplished something after a shopping spree of workout gear and clothing. Or you could vicariously feel achievement by watching an exercise class or sporting event. But we all know these “accomplishments” pale in comparison to the real thing, that glowy good feeling you get after a workout.

4. Holistic physical and mental health benefits. For weight loss, you can buy liposuction. For a better sex life, you can buy sex toys. For more energy, you can buy colorful little bottles of fruit-flavored taurine. In fact, there aren’t many single benefits of exercise that can’t be replicated in one way or another by buying something. However, cobbling together a suite of products is a poor proxy for the holistic health and well-being that exercise provides. Panaceas may not exist in this world, but exercise sure seems a lot like one. During the holiday season and every other time of year, it may be the best gift you can give yourself.

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