It’s well known and accepted that physical fitness is key to big beautiful brains over the course of our lives. I have spent a considerable portion of my life experiencing physical fitness routines over a contrasting array of styles, mostly stemming from my athletics background. As I’ve aged, and watch countless patrons of our Student Recreation Center make similar mistakes to those of my youth, began to realize that design theory can help us to inform of trends on the future of personal fitness. Perhaps more importantly, design theory can help us to contextualize personal fitness routines by a non-traditional value taxonomy that can help us rethink and improve our own practices. This is an analogous to my post Using design theory to explain the future of football. We’ll start at the bottom and generally work our way up the spiral meme-ladder: survival, tribal, authority, legal, performance, communitarian, and systemic.

My workout history goes way back to the summer between my fifth and six grade years. My uncle was the 7th-8th grade football coach, saw that I was already close to six feet tall and somewhat physically fit, and sensed opportunity. He, my dad, and their mutual friend Les would wake me up at 4:30 in the morning to make it to Anthony’s gym by the opening at 5 so my dad could make it to work at the parts store by 7. Of course there were questions about bringing someone as young as me into the gym. They new that light-weights high repetitions were key not to damage the still unfused growth plates in my bones and rapidly growing ligaments. As you can imagine, my uncle was a school teacher, so we closely followed a plan (M-pec’s, T-back, W-abs, Th-legs, F-bi’s and tri’s). Most of the exercises used free weights and standard controlled-motion machines.

What was probably the most important experience was for a pre-teen to interact closely with excellent adult mentors on a daily basis outside of their comfort zones. We had a tribe, scaffolded by some rules and values we gleaned from talking with others at the gym, and of course the performance goals of more reps and more weight. We really didn’t know much about strength training, it was magic to a degree. I’m guessing the majority of physical fitness routines are something similar. Things continued much like this until high school.

My high school football coach was, as usual, the physical fitness instructor. He was a former power-lifter with a college education in physical fitness. He told me a story once that he had to put on 20 pounds for a competition, for which he ate 4 baked potatoes a day for 4-6 months or something. As his license plate placard espoused “He who dies with the most toys wins”, he was highly performance focused, a winner, and an incredible mentor for that age group. Seeing the potential, I was in upper classmen workout sessions as a sophomore and eventually in two workout classes a day by my senior year (one using the on-site gym and a second at an off-site gym where we could play racquetball, etc). In the spring, this would happen on-top of a cross-fit training of sorts that the shot-put and discuss throwers went through in track. We’d flip tractor tires, complete obstacle courses, etc. The workouts covered a huge array of styles, and were not necessarily coordinated.

The workout routines took on a new level of structure and intensity in college football at the University of Idaho. Here we had very specific routines to complete a checklist where our reps, weights, and times were all recorded carefully and adapted through accepted schedules and targets. Our body-mass taken daily to track water content, and our body-fat percentages determined quarterly to yearly in a dunk tank. Matt drills often started at 5 am during the winter, workouts usually started from 6-7 the rest of the year with practices in the afternoons. We would do extensive powerlifts complimented by plyometrics and culminating in “supersets”, a form of torture where, for example, you and a partner would have to do pullups or pushups trading off for 1 minute intervals for a total of 3-4 minutes each without break. The authoritarian strength coach’s southern-bellows are still burned into my brain: “Johny is laying on the mat, I’ve stopped time and will continue when he rejoins the exercise!” To be clear, this was not permission for the rest of us to stop, it was a form of peer-pressure. Bottom line, everything was geared, and highly incentivised for performance from personal to team level. We would even tape our wrists and ankles on a daily bases to help with the high-impact shocks on the joints.

This all came to an end the spring of my sophomore year with a cracked L4 vertebrae in my back along with two bulging discs that impacted the spinal chord on my right side causing daily nerve issues. It took awhile for the doctors to find the crack, and it would have taken a vertebrae fusion to fix, so that ended my football career. I really don’t know whether I caused the injury in high-school doing box squats, or if it was bad form early in college, regardless, I couldn’t train from the pain and proceeded to drop 40 pounds to lighten the load. Losing the weight wasn’t that hard, persistent “funny-bone” pains up and down your leg doesn’t help the appetite.

For the rest of my college days I had a group of friends that would make the 6 am trek to the student rec for an hour long workout prior to breakfast. Now more evolved in workout philosophy, we would work complex circuits with combinations of plyometrics, free weights, and cross-training. High repititions. No more powerlifting. This was performance based for looks, and communitarian with increased values of sustainable life-long fitness. Every year out of football I would feel increasing arthritis in joints like my wrists and ankles (likely from the taping). I soon became able to shake my ankle and hear the bones knocking back and forth.

Now 10 years removed from my undergraduate days, with a wife and 2 year old, I hardly have enough time to make it to the gym. As such, the values I go to the gym with are completely different — I’m much more concerned about being able to play with a grand-kid someday than impressing the girls. Now connect this back to spiral memes, which is essentially just a value taxonomy. I muddled around (tribal-authoritarian) to learn the techniques (legal), achieved high performance, realized how unsustainable it was (communitarian), and now see how important each of these approaches is to different people, at different places in life, with different values (systemic). I’ve also earned, through experience, an attempt to predict the future of physical fitness routines.

Our broader society is in the middle of a legalistic-performance to performance-communitarian shift. So while we all have our individual values in mind, the popular currents will be primarily performance-communitarian in nature. The popular cross-fit movement is a great example:

Waning are the days of motion-controlled exercise machines. Why simulate an exercise when you can do the real thing and build core-muscles, hand-eye coordination, and increase calorie burn through required higher brain activity? This makes it much easier for a gym to be setup anywhere, we have one in an old auto-service joint here in Pullman. Even the philosophical values of the movement are communitarian in nature, as the founder of cross-fit said in an interview with 60-minutes, “the more we gave away, the more we got back in return.” You legalists out there are thinking “but what about the risks of injury?” Most normal rec centers have climbing walls and relatively untrained people lifting 400 pounds for squats. You accept the risk by engaging in the activity, the more we get into the communitarian mind-set the farther removed, and more weird, the legalistic meme becomes.

The other dominant trend is the rise of personal fitness tracking applications and tools such as the fit-bit and countless others. These allow you to easily track your own personal metrics for performance, glean information on helpful targets and routines from the collective, and adapt accordingly.

What this means is the future of physical fitness will be, of course, much more diverse. But the growing trend will be physical fitness activities that help increase the sustainability of our communities. We can use technology to track our fitness much easier and engage in activities like walking/biking/running to work, yardwork, community service, etc, that implicitly achieve our fitness goals during the pursuit of broader community good. The Bluezones study found that the people who live longest on the planet tend to have multi-mile walks on their daily routines. A movement is now trying to organize walking groups for daily commutes. Imagine a day when a community center needs to move a pile of rocks, sends out a note through a fitness tracking app, and a team of volunteers shows up to get their workout in and the pile moved without burning fossil fuels.

Like I’ve said with about teaching students:

A storm is gathering and the flood waters are rising. Do you send your students to the gym to lift weights (analogous to homeworks and quizzes) or downtown to start packing sand? Somewhere, someone is in need of exactly what you are teaching.

Somewhere, someone, could use those calories you are planning to burn.