Everyday system for easy exercising

sledge hammer

This is the third of seven posts about simple everyday systems for managing your time, health, and eating developed by Reinhard Engels. Fifteen or so years ago, Reinhard was an overweight computer programmer who ate poorly, sometimes drank too much, and avoided exercising.

For most things simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and according to Thoreau, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

So Reinhard created habits that were easy to do and could be sustained forever. He didn’t like complicated exercise routines – he wouldn’t like doing them and would likely stop if he made it to a goal.

About ten years ago, I stumbled across Reinhard’s idea for exercising for 14 minutes a day using a sledgehammer to mimic shoveling and other common movements. That’s my sledgehammer above. I painted bands on it for remembering where my hands go when I switch sides.

Starting there, I checked out his other systems. They were easy to implement and claimed longterm results for himself.

I didn’t really go whole hog on his system because I was already doing, and enjoying, other stuff like lifting weights, but I have used his sledgehammer idea, more as a fun way to rehab from injury.

Anyway, what follows are my shortened versions, from his website and podcast explanations, of his “everyday systems.” I did it for myself to have the ideas in one spot, and for you too, if you’re interested.

Take a sledgehammer and wrap an old sweater around it. This is your “shovelglove.” Every week day morning, set a timer for 14 minutes. Use the shovelglove to perform shoveling, butter churning, wood chopping and other motions until the timer goes off. Stop. Rest on weekends and holidays.

OK, this probably sounds a little crazy and arbitrary (and dangerous) to you. Let me explain why I came up with it. I think it’s virtues will then become apparent.

It was a rainy Sunday in 2002, I think. I hadn’t gone to the gym in over three months, and I was feeling painfully out of shape and antsy to do some kind of exercise. But it was raining outside, so I didn’t really want to leave the house, and the prospect of subjecting myself to the boring torture of the gym seemed even drearier. I wanted an exercise I could do right there, in my living room, without any fancy equipment.

I didn’t want to do sit-ups or pushups. I didn’t want to grovel on my stomach on the floor, like some degraded beast. I thought, “there must be some kind of movement I can do standing up, with the dignity of a human being. Some kind of movement that is natural and interesting, that my body would like to do, that would engage my mind , instead of just keeping it a helpless passive prisoner.”

I remembered reading something in some French novel about coal shovelers having the best abdominal muscles of anyone the author had ever seen. I forget where I read this. So I started making shoveling motions. Without even holding a shovel, just sort of air shoveling, I immediately knew I was on to something. The movement was fun, it, and even in pantomime it involved a lot of muscles, and my mind was engaged, I was thinking about the french coal miners, it was like acting, like a kid playing.

Now I could have gone outside to the back yard and actually started shoveling with a shovel. But, it was raining. I didn’t really have anything to shovel. But I couldn’t really shovel indoors, either. I’d need some kind of weight to move, for resistance, and I’d need some way of keeping it from scratching the floors or killing the cats.

That’s when it occurred to me: what I needed was a shovel with a weight attached to it, and a fuzzy glove to keep it from scratching the floors. At first I thought I’d call it “fuzzy shovel,” but “shovelglove” seemed catchier.

I went to the local hardware store, and after some experimenting, I wound up with something that worked: a sledgehammer with an old sweater wrapped around it. It had the right shape, just enough weight, and the requisite softness. And it was pleasingly simple.

Other movements besides shoveling occurred to me. My chief criterion was they had to have a natural analog, some useful movement that human beings had historically performed during the course of their ordinary daily activities. My hypothesis was that these movements would be inherently interesting to perform, develop muscles that might actually come in handy, and relatively safe. They might not target specific muscles quite as efficiently as the contrived motions of the gym, but that seemed an important consideration – what you won’t do (because it’s painfully boring) won’t help you.

The second criterion was that the movements had to be performed standing up. The first criterion pretty much makes this a given, historically people haven’t done a whole lot of work lying down, but I feel that erect posture is important enough to deserve its own particular emphasis. Before we were Homo sapiens, we were Homo habilis, the tool user, and before we were Homo habilus, we were Homo erectus, men who stood up. I firmly believe that you’ll feel better about whatever it is you’re doing (with a couple of obvious exceptions) if you do it standing up.

The third criterion was that the movements had to be convenient to perform in a modern living room. Plowing fields, useful as hell, you do it standing up, but I haven’t  figured out a way to do it in my living room.

I call these movements, “useful movements,” because that’s what they are, at least potentially. The trick is to really imagine yourself doing them — really shoveling, really chopping wood. It’ll keep you interested, and it’ll keep your form good. Form is important, you can seriously mess up up your back swinging around a sledgehammer like a spastic maniac. But form is also easy with shovelglove because you have this straight forward natural analogy for each movement. It’s almost more like acting than exercise.

So what are the movements? Over the years, I and people on the website have come up with quite a few. Here are the ones I do regularly these days: shoveling, churning butter, chopping wood, driving fench posts, hoist the sack, flip the lever, tack the bales, stoke the oven, the fireman, and chop the tree. The names are mostly pretty evocative, you can get an idea of what they’d be like.

I’d just like to say that my useful movements movements hypothesis turned out to be correct — at least for me and lots of other people who’ve posted to the shovelglove bulletin board. The movements are fun, so fun that I’ve only missed a handful of weekday mornings in almost five years, and I’ve gotten very strong. Five years ago I was a pudgy weakling who had never stuck with an exercise routine for more than a few months. Now I have forearms like Popeye, and a discernible, if not exactly bulging six pack. Looking in the mirror is not only good for my vanity, it’s like I’m a walking anatomy lesson. I have muscles in places I never knew existed.