Ruby’s ruminations on...our relationship with food and fitness

Ruby Hryniszak is a regular contributor to the Harborough Mail online.
Ruby Hryniszak is a regular contributor to the Harborough Mail online.

I like to write about things that are relevant to me, so this week I thought I’d take a look at exercise.

I actually hate exercising with a passion – it’s boring and repetitive and I don’t much like not being able to walk the day after I’ve been for a run.

That said, there are quite a few questions I’ve been pondering recently, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to look into them.

Why do we hate exercise so much? We all know it’s good for us and we all know that even ten minutes every day would make a big difference to our health, so why don’t we do it?

One thing I’ve experienced is that you either avoid exercise at all costs or become completely addicted to it, and as far as I’m aware there isn’t really any middle ground.

Of course, it’s possible to move from one side to the other. I’m guilty of jumping backwards and forwards every couple of months (usually because after a few months of going on the cross-trainer every day I’m bored to tears of staring at the wall in front of me).

What is it that makes us so desperately addicted to exercise once we start? The thing that bothers me the most is the fact that nobody seems to like it, or want to do it, even though a lot of forms of exercise can be fun.

It isn’t just exercise: It’s everything that’s meant to be good for us. Fruit and vegetables? Nope, nobody likes those. Brown bread? Nah. Boiled or fried - that’s a no-brainer. Why do so many people think about food and fitness in that way?

If you look back to our early ancestors, they wouldn’t have had the luxuries we do now. They’ve been out hunting, on their feet, having to move to survive and that lifestyle would have kept them so much fitter than we are already. They wouldn’t have had access to fatty and processed foods as we do now, so their diet would’ve been natural and clean, comparatively.

So, already there’s a huge difference. Their food sources would’ve been less readily available and actually capturing an animal for its meat is so much more difficult than buying a few steaks from the supermarket.

Evolutionarily, we eat what’s available, like most animals. A wild animal will eat what you give it because it doesn’t know when its next meal might be and it’s thankful for an easy meal. That’s how we would have to have been in order to survive.

To a wild animal, a fattier food source is more desirable because it provides more calories and is more substantial. Higher-calorie foods are harder to get a hold of in the wild, so if you just happened to find some, you’d eat it gratefully in the small quantities you were given it.

The trouble is that we have desirable high-calorie foods readily available in every supermarket and newsagent across the country. On the most basic level, if you’re shown a chocolate bar and an apple, you’d probably choose the chocolate bar because it provides you with more energy to survive. However, in the world we’ve created, we don’t need so many calories every day, because we don’t have to go out hunting, we spend a lot more time sat down, and food is easy to come by. We didn’t have to worry about portioning when we were hunting because what we found may not have been enough, and if it was, it was only just barely.

Now that we have an arguably unlimited supply of high-calorie foods, we’re naturally going to choose them, and we forget that we don’t need to eat large quantities of them, because our next meal is actually guaranteed to be good. I like to think part of the reason a lot of us prefer chocolate and sweets is because if we were living rough, they’d be ideal and we’d use up the energy.

However, when you look at the amount of knowledge we have regarding nutrition, that isn’t really an excuse. Nobody’s going to believe you if you go to the doctor’s weighing upwards of 20 stone and tell them you’re eating a big bag of Cadbury’s chocolate buttons to yourself because you need them to survive.

It’s taught in school what we should and shouldn’t be eating, and we all know well enough what our diets should be like. We know chocolate’s not bad for us if we eat it in moderation.

Realistically speaking, nutrition is easy. Home-cooked food, with semi-skimmed milk and fruit juice or water instead of fizzy drinks. How hard is that? Apparently: Very.

Nutrition and diet are so force-fed to us in schools that I actually think we’re driven away from healthy choices because we want to rebel. Fruit doesn’t taste bad at all - in fact, a lot of the time I’d rather have a pear or an orange than some chocolate - and nor do most other healthy options.

Since we’re told so often that we have to be eating them, though, I think we just decide we’re not going to, because we know that we should.

I do that with most other things in my life. If my mum keeps badgering me about something, there’s no chance I’ll actually do it. I want to feel like I’m doing it for myself, not somebody else. I want to rebel against any authorities just to prove that I am my own person and they can’t control me. Perhaps because it’s teachers who really hammer into our heads that we need to be healthier, we decide that we aren’t going to be, to spite our teachers and rebel? I don’t know if that’s really true, but it seems plausible.

I’m adamant that exercise has a very similar problem. We don’t have to move very much. Once we’re old enough to drive we just jump into our cars and park directly at our destinations, with only a few seconds of walking from the car to the doors. Most jobs involve a lot of sitting down, and though they aren’t physically tiring, they can be mentally exhausting. So you get home from work and sit down and put the computer on or watch TV. You’re not moving at all. Thinking burns calories, but just consider this: Do you really think that an hour of quiet contemplation is going to burn as much as an hour of jogging? No chance, as much as I wish it did (I’d be an athlete if it was possible to get fit through thinking alone).

You see gym memberships advertised on the TV or online, but they aren’t really appealing. Exercise is made out to be a bit of a chore now that it isn’t critically important. We don’t have to do it, so we choose not to, because we’re lazy.

Going to a gym is making a real conscious effort to exercise, and that’s no fun. When you look at other countries, though, they go out and play tennis or badminton. They go out swimming and cycling just because it’s part of their culture. All of that is exercise and it’s great for you, but they aren’t doing it because it’s exercise; They do it because it’s fun. That’s what we’re missing.

We’re told we need to exercise to be fit, healthy and toned and that we shouldn’t do it to enjoy ourselves, but because it’s good for us. If the focus was on having fun, I’m sure more people would exercise, but it isn’t. Look at an advert for a gym membership. I’m guessing it’s advertising weightloss, yes? That’s what they usually do. Weightloss is hard work. Hard work isn’t normally fun. I’m too lazy for that, so I’m not going to do it – it’s too difficult.

There’s something else I’ve noticed, too: The only people I see in gyms (with some rare exceptions, of course) are people who are already fit and strong. It seems like everybody works out at home, becomes addicted, and then goes to the gym to show off the fact that they’re athletic.

The bridge between fat and fit isn’t ever seen to be built in any case, but this is something that does have middle-ground.

Serious fitness can be achieved no matter what size you are currently. Take it from me - I can do upwards of 14 miles in a day if I’ve got the time and am really in the mood, and I used to get out of breath walking from my bedroom to the bathroom just across the hall.

Anybody can have toned abs and a nice tush - it just takes a bit of time and work. We all forget that it takes a good long time to become that fit, and it takes determination. I’ve been at it for a couple of months now and I’m happy to admit that I don’t do it for fun. I do it because I appreciate the results and I like to think that my boyfriend does too.

Improved agility and endurance are never a bad thing, after all. Not to mention the fact that I much prefer my bum after a week of doing squats.

The important thing to remember is that it does take time. I think that’s another of the reasons people don’t exercise as much as they should do. They do an hour on, let’s say, on an exercise bike, and feel quite proud. Then they look in the mirror and see no real difference other than their skin being considerably more red and glistening. That’s a slightly disheartening thing to see after a good workout, but you’re never going to see a difference after one hour.

If you do an hour every day for a few days, then you’ll both see and feel the difference, but it’ll take those few days to start seeing improvements. Laziness says it should be easy, but great muscle tone is never easy, and you have to work to keep it once you’ve got it.

Once you do start, then, why does it become so addictive? Well, exercise actually triggers the release of endorphins, which are uplifting neurotoxins that basically make you feel happier. They’re addictive in themselves.

I like to go for half-an-hour on the cross-trainer when I’m feeling low and it really helps to pick me up. Endorphins make you feel good. Once you get into exercise, you start to see a physical difference, and you feel as though you have more energy and you feel healthier. Both of those things are great and if you’ve started working out, you know that’s why you feel better.

They’re also addictive. You see one improvement, and think, “If I carry on doing this, then it’ll get even better.” It’s one of those just-five-more-minutes type of things that you can’t get out of once you start them.

I have to put a set time into the cross-trainer when I’m going to use it because if I don’t, I’ll tell myself “just another five minutes” every five minutes, and before I know it, I’ve been on there for an hour-and-a-half and I can’t stand up when I get off.

I’m addicted to the results I get, and I’m addicted to the endorphins I get at the end of every workout.

It can be a social thing, too. One of the best things about exercising is being able to go out with friends or even family members and exercising together. It’s more fun with someone else and you can support each other. I don’t really workout with anyone other than the artists on my iPod (my boyfriend only likes one type of exercise and he can’t do that at the gym), but on the odd occasion my mum’ll go on the exercise bike when I’m on the cross-trainer and it’s so much nicer to have a bit of company.

You feel so much more confident in yourself when you know you’re looking after yourself, too. I’m a lot happier knowing that I’m healthier and knowing that I’m physically sound. I feel more confident and confidence is an attractive quality. That’s an addictive feeling as well as the endorphins and wanting to do just another few minutes so that you can beat your record.

I haven’t mentioned keeping records yet, but that’s perhaps the most addictive part of exercise. I keep track of my progress, so I know what my longest distance covered in an hour is. That means that the next time I go on the cross-trainer, I’m probably going to push myself too far trying to beat my old record and go even just a tenth of a kilometre further. That’s enough to get anybody with a competitive streak in them hooked for a while.

The difficult bit is getting to the point where you’ve done enough to get addicted to it. It only takes about three days, I think, if you’re really determined.

If you’re not interested in running or cycling then you could take up badminton or swimming. They’re just as good for you and can be a lot more fun for people who aren’t happy to just get on a treadmill and run.

There are a lot of different types of exercise. You don’t just have to do aerobic exercise. There are muscle-toning exercises, stretches, and other less strenuous activities that still require some sort of physical involvement.

I class drumming as a sport. Have you ever seen a professional drummer? They’re unbelievably fit. They have to be. Playing the drums is very physically demanding, and if you’re touring with a band, playing gigs every night, you’re going to see the results.

Walking a lot is a really good way of getting exercise without having to try too hard, because it isn’t too tiring. Even playing guitar can be good for you. If you’re playing standing up, it’s good for your arms and for your shoulders (especially if you have a big heavy guitar) and just standing instead of sitting burns calories. It’s great for your hands, too. I’ve noticed that my left hand is more toned than my right hand, and I’m sure that’s because my left hand has to work a lot harder on the frets of my guitar than my right hand does holding my plectrum. Think of it as finger gymnastics – it just means the muscles are stronger and firmer, compared to my ‘lazy’ right hand, which doesn’t need to be as toned for the amount of work it does.

So is that really all it is? Do we love unhealthy foods because evolution and our survival instincts say we should? Do we avoid exercise because we’re lazy and expect results instantly? Maybe.

There was an interesting show on TV the other day which compared sugar to fat, and it’s actually quite relevant to some of the things I’ve already covered.

There’s a huge debate in the health world, all to do with whether fat or sugar is worse for you. Experimentally, two twins swapped their regular diets to test the argument. One of them had a high sugar, low-fat diet, and the other indulged in high fat with low sugar. The result was surprising. Neither gained a really obvious amount of weight, and both of them knew when to stop eating. The twin who was eating all fat was close to having diabetes, whilst the twin who’d been eating sugar wasn’t anywhere near. He was actually doing quite well, comparatively.

That’s the opposite of what anybody had been expecting. They found that the only time food is really addictive, and we don’t know when to stop eating, is when it includes a combination of fat and sugar. A ratio of 5:5 is about perfect, and at that point, we lose all control over how much we eat. That’s when we gain weight.

My dad told me something interesting the other day: he said that it’s been speculated that, as lazy as we’re all getting, eventually we’re going to be burning almost the same amount of calories as we do when we’re asleep. We don’t burn very much when we sleep, by any stretch. That’s quite frightening. I certainly prefer exercise to the idea of us all being so lazy that we hardly move during our waking hours.

Hopefully I’m not the only one.

Column by Ruby Hryniszak.

Ruby is a regular contributor to the Harborough Mail online.

Follow Ruby on Twitter, @13eautifulLife.