Natural Father, Natural Fitness

About a year and a half ago, I took a “real” job again.

Before then, I was self-employed as a handyman/odd-jobber, doing everything from putting up fences to permaculture-based landscaping to installing woodstoves and insulation. That was great, except that being my own boss made it too easy to think, “It’s a perfect day for bouldering. Work can wait.”, or “If I don’t go jump in the river right now, I’m gonna go nuts/get heat exhaustion/(insert excuse here).”

Now I’ve got a steady income again and my body isn’t getting beat up everyday, but being inside and semi-sedentary has been hard. I’ve got some serious chair-time logged, on the computer and the phone, and by the end of the day my shoulders are up around my ears, my hip flexors are so tight that it’s hard to stand up straight, and my butt hurts from sitting. I start to feel my age and I hate it. How do I still feel 20 inside but 40 outside?

The last time that I actively worked out was at a local gym, and I would lift for an hour or so every other day, using both free weights and machines. But my “routine” was based on what I learned over 20 years ago with a basic bench and weight set (plastic-covered cement “plates”, remember those?) and bodybuilding books from the library. 4 sets of 10-12 reps for each exercise, split your workouts between pushing and pulling, lots of isolated work like curls, and so on. A complete Arnold Schwarzenegger/Lou Ferrigno fascination.

So I’d go to the gym with a routine in mind and never get through it because it was too complex. I stayed at it for 6 months, and I always got a workout, but I didn’t really feel any progress. Part of that was also because I would always work on my strong points, like upper body strength, and wuss out on my weak points – legs and core. If I then figured in the time and money involved in going somewhere outside my house to work out, and the amount of time invested in the gym every week, it didn’t make sense to continue that way. So I quit the gym (another story about contracts and direct payments and bounced checks). I would still mess around with jungle gym stuff at the park and work on my handstands, but I wasn’t regular or disciplined about it at all.

So I’m looking for some fun way to stay fit and young (still bouldering, but not so much in the winter), and I hear that a friend is putting together an indoor soccer team to play in a league at the sports center, so I join up. The first sort of practice was at a park, and I don’t really warm up, I just run out there. I’ve got tennis shoes, not cleats, and I just put out a cigarette 5 minutes before. I imagine that I’m still 16, king of the hill on the soccer field, and within 20 minutes, pull a muscle in my groin.

Of course, being a man, I continue to play and limp around for the next half hour. Stupid. Needless to say, I was hurting after every game that first session, but ready to play the next week and feeling some improvement each time. I finally wised up and ran wind sprints every other day between games, but I had to force myself. I would feel like puking afterwards, it was so intense.

Another friend recommended some books and resources about max-effort workouts and functional fitness and loaned me several. Never Gymless by Ross Enamait, and The Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline are two of the best that I’ve read.

I began by getting a speed rope (6 bucks) at the local sporting goods store and gathering some big rocks. We already had a rope-climb as part of a swing, 20 feet of 1 inch manila rope. I figured that I would start simple and yet try to get full body workout in under 20 minutes. I skipped rope at about 80% of full speed until I had to stop, then go climb the rope, then do one handed clean and press with a big rock, then plyo squats, then repeat the circuit until 20 minutes is up. 20 minutes seems like forever when you are at maximum effort.

I attempted to work out every day except Sunday, alternating wind sprints with bodyweight exercises, but grew to dread it. Now I try for at least three days a week, plus any spontaneous tree climbing or jungle gym fun, and I put up my slackline for balance and core strength.

It’s really been working for me, and I can feel the difference in my mental state and my attitude, because if I miss a couple of days, I get cranky and low energy. If I go out back and crank off a bunch of pullups or do handstands, all of a sudden I’ve got energy to spare. There’s a lesson in there…

To me, natural fitness means a functional, full-body fitness, one that is maintained through low-tech or no-tech backyard workouts. It doesn’t require investing a lot of money, but it does require the willingness to go all out every time. If I get in a rut with a routine, I can easily improvise or learn new skills (handstands, muscle-ups, slackline, unicycle) and add them in. I recently read of the connection between max-effort high intensity exercise and increased HGH production, so I’ve been focusing on the growing-younger aspect of being active.

I’m convinced that movement and rhythm play a huge part in our health, and that when you skip rope, take an African dance or swing dance class, play a drum or take a long bike ride, you re-configure and re-connect your mind with your body. It’s your built-in health insurance!

As a father, I want to be able to keep up with my kids, and I want to be able to climb mountains with my grandkids. I don’t want to miss out because my body won’t do it or my mind won’t do it. When my kids see me out there spinning the rope, they think it’s pretty funny. But isn’t that part of fatherhood, getting laughed at by the munchkins?

Derek Markham

Things I dig include: simple living, natural fatherhood, attachment parenting, natural building, unassisted childbirth (homebirth), bicycles, permaculture, organic and biodynamic gardening, vegan peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, bouldering, and the blues. Find me elsewhere at @NaturalPapa, @DerekMarkham, Google+, or RebelMouse.

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