Forget high-intensity interval training. More and more people are realising that easy-going, thoughtful exercise can have surprising benefits
This year, the Harpers Bazaar list of best new fitness trends and classes to try for 2018 included an incongruous addition. At No 7, wedged between hula-hoop body-toning sessions and trampoline fitness classes, was walking plain, old-fashioned walking, that anyone can do for free. It seemed an odd choice of new activity to highlight in a list of fitness trends.
The idea that walking is suddenly fashionable appears, at first, to be at odds with everything were told about where fitness is going and the pace at which people want to be doing it. A worldwide survey of fitness trends shows that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is the most popular fitness trend in the west this year. In the UK, spinning is most popular, according to an industry report from UKActive and DataHub.
Of course, the idea of fast, intense, time-efficient exercise that delivers insta-results fits in with how we see ourselves: as people whose lives are the busiest in world history. I went for a walk lacks the heroic ring of: I just killed myself doing 50 burpees. However, a deeper look at how people are exercising or, more importantly, want to be exercising, shows a different trend: a move away from the quick fix, back to slower (although not necessarily less difficult), more measured forms of fitness. Conscious is the word I kept coming across while researching this article: conscious motion, conscious flow, conscious control. Imagine the opposite of hurling your, perhaps uncoordinated body around a fitness class at high speed: thats conscious movement. The idea is that, if youre conscious, youre doing whatever it is that youre doing to your body with precision and a full awareness of the physical mechanisms at work yin yoga is conscious, rugby is not.
More importantly, its also about being self-aware enough to see the big picture, diagnosing your physical, spiritual and emotional needs. As you step back from your once-a-week spinning class you might become aware, for example, that youre still a stressed, underslept commuter with a bad shoulder, dull skin, uneven muscle tone, a spine that has morphed itself into the exact shape of your office chair, an iffy diet and a soulless box-set habit. Having ascertained these things, consciously, you would then go about, best-case scenario, reconfiguring your lifestyle accordingly.
The elite trainer David Higgins delivers bad news, however, for anyone who is hoping consciousness might mean not having to do any exercise at all. The gym, he says is not a substitute for lack of activity during the week. Its not, OK, Ive been sitting on my arse or lying on my back for 23 hours of the day and then Im going to go to the gym for an hour. Higgins was the first person I heard use the term conscious movement. I dont think most people have heard of it. I think its a new thing even though its been around for ever. I think, finally, people are realising that they dont have to necessarily kill themselves to get major, meaningful results.
Higgins trains actors and stuntmen and women for feature films (including Wonder Woman and Mission Impossible). Samuel L Jackson says he was physically broken when he began working with Higgins and credits him with patiently and caringly [putting] me together again. I feel that, because of this and his pilates and yoga background, Higgins probably knows more about health and wellbeing than the average trainer. His favourite two words are mitigate against something he insists you must do to whatever in your life that may be damaging you. Whether its the amount of blue light radiating from your computer screen or the strain put on your back by your desk job, you need to mitigate against it. This, he admits, probably means giving your life a bit of a reset. Get your arse out of the chair, pull your chin back, give yourself a bit of a double chin when youre on the phone or the computer. Pull your shoulders up and down. Stand up and go for a walk at lunchtime: get 20 minutes of sun on your skin. Its the little things that are going to make the biggest difference and if you do go to that spinning class, thats the cherry on top. The big win is what you are doing outside of the gym.
The way were living is not anatomically sustainable, he says. We should be integrating conscious movement into every area of our lives: lateral lunges in front of the TV; rolling on our backs like children to loosen up our spines, to give two examples.
If you can find something that maybe takes you into your body a little bit more, then Im all for it, rather than trying to escape from the stresses of life. Kind of internalise things a little bit and say, How do I feel? What is my body saying to me right now?
He says that HIIT is a quick fix whose practitioners often dont have adequate control over their bodies to execute it safely. Thats not where Im coming from. Im interested in longevity, postural control and a pain-free lifestyle. We are all going to have to look a bit more inwards if we are going to survive and live a happier, healthier, more pain-free life.