How to Put Your Body to Use for a Good Cause

People need more physical movement, more time in nature, and more connection.

What if living life made you healthy? Just imagine a world where everyday life pulled you and your closest friends towards frequent physical activity. You’d run, jump, swim, climb, push, and pull without having to plan time and without ever feeling compelled to track how many calories you were burning.

What if living life made you healthy? Just imagine a world where everyday life pulled you and your closest friends towards frequent physical activity. You’d run, jump, swim, climb, push, and pull without having to plan time and without ever feeling compelled to track how many calories you were burning.

This is how it has been for most of human history and not just because there wasn’t a McDonalds on every corner or Pop Tarts in every home. In a world where screens weren’t in our pocket and on our walls, where threats weren’t policed by professionals, and where food wasn’t bought in grocery stores, humans bonded together to fill all their needs for protection, food, and even entertainment.

Today, rather than uniting to physically ensure our own survival, we are able to sit safely inside our comfortable homes, drive to our air-conditioned jobs, and complete a days work without having to stand up or, often, even talk to anyone if we don’t want to.

As an introvert, I often relish these days of isolated hyper-productivity. But of course, these are only enjoyable because they offer such stark contrast from my normal world and because I know I’ll be able to come home to a loving family. Even among the most introverted humans, there is a deep need for connection.

An abundance of comfort, convenience, and junk food, along with the absence of any need to ensure our own survival has been devastating to our collective physical health. Global obesity now kills more people than car crashes and most other things we spend our time fearing. Yet the physical costs don’t fully capture the extent of our modern crisis.

Our safe, highly efficient world encourages populations to become isolated and deeply self-serving. We have no idea where all the things we rely on come from and no cause demanding that we bind together behind a common mission. Immersed in entertainment and lacking a community purpose, mental health has grown consistently worse. Today, suicide, drug overdoses, and school shootings are all at peaks never seen before in recorded history.

Despite our comfort and staggeringly high standard of living, our bodies and minds are dying rapidly. We have more, but we are not more. While it is wonderful that billions can go to sleep without worrying if physical violence, hunger, or the elements will end them soon, there are also costs that traditional education has somehow neglected to illuminate us about.

Few understand the environment their biology expected and the human needs that evolved from that environment. When we don’t have to collectively invest in our own survival we tend to wither away physically and emotionally.

Despite technological improvements, societies usually filled this contribution void because they still depended on the efforts of all people to meet its needs—whether in the form of wars, food production, or a town’s local tradesman—people felt a sense of duty and bonded together behind mutual values.

The society demanded their competency and, though this required hard physical work, they were better for having a reason to contribute. For a variety of reasons, from a changing legal mindset to a burgeoning entertainment/advertising industry, this narrative of mutual values and mutual dependency has eroded quickly in the last 50 years.

The Death of Youth Sports

Consider the modern youth sports climate. Athletics have always been the grand microcosm of life, teaching the hard lessons while implanting our most cherished values like courage, toughness, sacrifice, and discipline.

We all recognized that this feature, along with physical literacy and appreciation for exercise, was their most significant purpose of youth sports. Everyone understood that sacrifice was required and welcomed the inevitable lessons.

You may be the team’s best shortstop, your preferred position, but if you are also the team’s best option at catcher and the second option at shortstop is better than the second option at catcher, you’ll be behind home plate. Team first was more than just simple rhetoric.

Similarly, we understood how the more talented player didn’t always improve the team most. 1+1+3 could be five, but it could also be four or six, depending on the character of the athlete and what they brought out in their teammates. We learned how to win and lose gracefully and accepted that if we didn’t like an outcome, be it playing performance or playing time, the burden of responsibility would lie on us to put forth greater effort.

Parents today are more likely to disregard the lessons of sports in pursuit of its glorious outcomes, most notably, the vaunted college scholarship. The youth sports culture is now characterized by four-hour banquets, participation trophies, illogically large all-conference teams, personal gurus, weekly recruiting showcases across the country, and the headlong quest for self-promotion.

Coaches spend hours meeting bereaved parents that have convinced themselves that their child’s lack of playing time, recruiting attention, selection for the varsity, or solidarity with teammates must indicate an epic injustice. Community teams have lost their appeal, traded in for the ever-abundant supply of “elite” select teams eager to sell themselves to parents as the best route for their child’s self-promotion.

When they don’t meet a parent’s delusional expectations, the parents will simply choose a new team that is eager to get in and make a sale. It is not uncommon for high-school athletes to move towns or jump from public to private school, and vice-versa, driven only by the headlong quest for individual sports glory.

Sports were once raw and honest. In a very real sense, they mimicked the conditions of our primal heritage. Today we’ve bastardized our sports leagues to fit our own images. Ironically, these efforts to stoke a generation’s self-esteem, shower them with adoration, and indoctrinate them in self-promotion have only hurt our youth’s physical and emotional health. In training a generation to be narcissists, we embed all the pathologies of narcissism.

Youth sports participation is way down, as parents simply opt out of the madness. Many miss out on the community, the physical activity, and the discipline because parents have, understandably, determined that avoiding the maze of money, time, and self-promotion is the healthier decision.

This same formula now plays out in every arena of life as our communities increasingly become collections of overwhelmed people rushing through their increasingly busy, distracted lives. Social media and smartphones only fan the flames as immense social pressure pulls people to curate their life highlight reels. Today, most people spend the majority of their waking hours looking at a screen.

There are bright spots, notably within the fitness industry. The CrossFit model has been unbelievably successful, largely because of its honest personality and knack for community building.

They are who they are and they know if you commit, you’ll find a supportive group bonded through common experience and who even shares a long list of shared rites of passage. Outside of CrossFit, many other boutique style gyms, like Sean Griffin’s Chicago Primal, offer a similarly impressive community experience.

Communities must be bonded by more than location and legal code. We need shared values that tend to be fostered through shared experience and a shared sense of duty. It is wonderful that we have rights, but rights inherently come with responsibility. It is the absence of a sense of duty and the absence of shared work that breeds our fractured communities.

Leave It Better Than Before

I bike as my primary means of transportation. Every day on my five-mile commute to work, I pass boatloads of discarded trash—fast food bags, cups, beer cans, boxes, discarded stuffed animals, you name it. As a rule, I pick up trash when I see it, but I’ve made peace with the fact that this twenty-minute ride would probably eclipse an hour if I stopped for every piece of litter. It is time I did something.

We will be more fulfilled if we get out and nature and move on behalf of a good cause. In fact, we’ll be much healthier. Dan Buettner’s phenomenal book, Blue Zones, has found that the communities around the globe where people live longest follow similar patterns.

“The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons, or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.”

Dan Buettner

My hunch is that these communities also don’t have much litter. They put shopping carts up, walk to find a trash can, and whenever they see it, they pick litter up. People need more physical movement, more time in nature, and more connection. Picking up litter is an obvious, easy place to start.

The Leave It Better Campaign

This coming Independence Day Weekend, Inspired Human Development (IHD) will be organizing a Leave it Better campaign. It is simple. Our lives should leave the world a better place. That ethos will make us happier.

On July 5th, I’ll be organizing a litter pick-up in Mansfield, Texas. We’ll meet at 8 am at 3001 E. Broad Street, Mansfield, TX 76063. I’ll have a few previously selected places of emphasis to choose from and we will set out to walk them and eliminate any litter.

The litter clean-up will take no more than an hour and then anyone who likes is welcome to return to the park at 9:30 am for an hour of games. We’ll work together and then play together.

My partner Justin Lind, will organize a similar event in Telluride, Colorado for Saturday, July 6th. If you cannot make it to either of these places I would love for you to do something similar in your local community. There is no barrier to entry and no money is required.

People just have to show up with water and trash bags and invest themselves on behalf of a shared cause. Your physical presence and effort make your part of something bigger than yourself and that is an essential human need.

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