Monday, June 9, 2014

Physical Wellness: What I Wish They Would Have Told Me

I'm 24 years-old and around 184 pounds at the time of this writing. I am also an athlete and that still boggles my mind.

When I was in school I never imagined I'd be as active as I am now. I played soccer as a child for a bit and while I did enjoy it, I absolutely hated being center and usually ended up in the wings or in front of the goal. I hated anything to do with running- how fast everyone was compared to me, the sporadic, panting breathing (and how much my throat would hurt if it was cold outside), the stitch in my side, how fast my heart raced and how long it took for it to go away afterward. The bottom line was that it was uncomfortable and painful for me. So I avoided it like the plague.

Since coming to Japan and observing how sports and physical wellness are treated here, I've learned a lot about my own physical health and I think to myself, "Why didn't I learn this earlier?!". I've realized that due to the way our health and physical education classes are structured in the US, children aren't learning enough about how their bodies work and why exercise is so important. The ones that don't conform to the accepted standard of "physically fit" are ignored and end up feeling like they have no options open to them in high school. I've come to believe that there is something active for everyone to do no matter who they are and children could benefit greatly by being exposed to more options early on in life.

Physical "Education"

Gym class is taught as something that must be done as opposed to something that anyone should do on a regular basis. Gym teachers tell you to play badminton so you play badminton. Today we're playing basketball and tomorrow we're swimming because we say so and for no other reason. At no point was any of this physical activity connected to any actual physical "education". Why is this kind of exercise good for you and what are the physical and mental benefits? What's the difference between "aerobic" and "isometric" exercise? Why are nutrition labels based on 2,000 calories a day? How do you even read a nutrition label?

At no point do I remember learning anything about our actual bodies. All we pick up is that taller and/or more muscular bodies are good at sports. Naturally this leads to the attitude that if you don't have this type of body, you just aren't ever going to be good at or enjoy sports at all. It doesn't help that football and basketball are the standard by which all athletes are measured in the United States. The result is that many adolescents feel they just aren't "built" to do sports and aren't encouraged to look for any other options outside high school.

Our laughably terrible health classes tell us about our petuitaries and how they make our bodies go bananas, but we're taught to be ashamed of them. How are we supposed to talk about the best way to develop good physical habits if we're not even comfortable talking about our own bodies? We need to educate kids about how to incorporate more movement in our daily routines and emphasize that they still have a big impact on their health even if they are not extreme changes.

The Importance of Role Models

I met three people in high school that started to change this attitude for me:

1. The first was during my strength and conditioning class when my gym teacher was discussing my progress and remarked, "You have a naturally strong body." This simple remark kinda blew me away. Whenever I looked in the mirror, I never saw "muscle" or "strength". This got me thinking that maybe there's more potential in the human body than what can be seen.

2. When I was fourteen, my dad took me to the shooting range. Soon after, the Stoughton Archery Club was formed and I began what is probably my favorite sport. Here was something I could not only do, but not feel intimidated or discouraged from doing. People of all backgrounds and body types gather at the range. Moreover, this became a family sport that my father, brothers, and I could enjoy together.

3. The third is when I was working on a large graph for math class on the hallway floor with a friend since it was too big to draw out on the desks. Eventually, we started play-fighting with the yard-sticks as dumb kids do when tasked with mundane things. As our shenanigans ensued, a teacher walked by and casually asked, "Would you like to learn how to do that properly?"

After staring like a deer in headlights for a few seconds, we giggled nervously, shook our heads and said, "Nah." This man eventually became my fencing instructor and one of the most important mentors in my life. He emphasized invaluable concepts like true discipline and critical thinking.

I stumbled into these sports by happy accident, but too many children don't have healthy role models in their daily lives outside their gym teachers. Nobody steps up to help them find a sport or form of exercise that is right for them and they can make into a life-long activity.

The majority of my students belong to sports clubs and practice every day after school for 2-3 hours. Then they have practice on weekends. Then they have tournaments. These clubs become a major part of their lives and are viewed as almost as important as academic class. In university, these clubs and social circles become an essential part of their resumes for prospective jobs.

Then there are the multitude of physical events throughout the warm seasons. There's the annual "sports day" where the whole school participates (teachers included) to split into teams and compete in various physical activities like relay races, 100m dashes, and tugs-of-war. There's a prefecture-wide track-and-field day.

Why We Do Sports

Throughout high school I hardly ever missed archery practice. Here's the thing though: I didn't understand why. For whatever reason, I just wasn't very good at it. Both my brothers and my dad were always leaps and bounds ahead of me and I found it very discouraging. But time and again, I found myself going back and I didn't know why. If I ended up disappointed at every competition, why did I keep going?

Kyudo is the complete opposite of Western archery in many ways. One of these is that the emphasis isn't on hitting on the target so much as the shooting process and proper form. Without the pressures of racking up points and "winning", I finally realized: enjoyment doesn't have anything to do with how good you are. When it came to archery, I wanted to be better than my brothers and I wanted to win and those expectations marred my experience. When it comes to kyudo, I just enjoy doing it.

Again, this has a lot to do with role models. Part of the reason I stayed in archery was because my instructors and family were very supportive and encouraging, but they also shared my goals and mindset. My kyudo instructor told me from the get-go that hitting the target isn't important and that even the highest-ranking archers can't always do it perfectly. Every time I retrieve my arrows from around the target, I'm reminded of a Japanese saying, 猿でも木から落ちる, or "Even monkeys fall from trees."

Too many children find themselves doing sports they don't like or spending more time on it than they would like. Coaches weed out the "weak links" and leave them on the sidelines. Overzealous parents force there children into sports and then get frustrated when they show no motivation or aptitude. When their team doesn't win, they're made to feel like failures. In this environment, exercise becomes something difficult, frustrating, and not enjoyable.

There are so many things that I know now that shouldn't have taken me so many years to figure out on my own.

What Do We Get Out of Sports?

I never would have started kendo were it not for my husband. I attended his first kendo class purely as a translator, but then the instructor walked out of the storage room with two shinai and handed one to each of us. Since my prevailing philosophy as a foreignor in Japan is "go with the flow", I gave it a try. Then I came to the next lesson. And then the next one.

Whenever I watch kendo practice, I marvel at how fast and fluid they are. They almost fly across the floor and each strike is fast and precise. As I watched, I felt more and more that I wanted to be able to move like that. I wanted to be that graceful, strong, and fast.

I'm not gonna lie: it wasn't all fun and games at first (I read in an article somewhere that said, "If you're enjoying kendo, you're not doing it right"). One thing I didn't notice before was how aerobic the sport is and I could barely get through the warm-up at first. I hated how hard my heart pounded and how my calf muscles hurt. But I knew that it would get better and I now had a better reason to fight through the beginning excrutiating struggle. Every time I saw my fellow kendoshi fly across the dojo I saw my reason for continuing.

Before, I could barely walk up the stairs at school without my heart pounding. Now it takes an hour at practice to do that. Before, I looked in the mirror and saw room for improvement, now I see power and muscle hiding under all that cellulose. Although I can't really say I see huge physical changes, I still somehow feel and look "better". People have tried to tell me what self-esteem is and that I should have more of it, but it took more than words for me to fully understand.

You will be surprised how much momentum you can build once you start exercising regularly. A body at rest wants to stay at rest and a body in motion wants to stay in motion. If I'm at my desk with nothing to do all day, I'll start to feel terrible unless I get up and move. Before, I couldn't get myself to exercise. Now, I can't seem to get enough. Instead of going home and collapsing into my bed after practice, I want to hit the gym instead.

Something for Everyone

People who look down on "gamers" really bug me. Everyone plays games. The only difference is what kinds of games and how much we play them. When I was little, my family used to play all sorts of board games. I loved them. I grew up playing Halo with my twin brother. The growing popularity of murder mystery games amuses me to no end since it's basically Dungeons and Dragons with a different setting and no dice. With so many different ways to play out there, I sincerely think that we are all gamers at heart and there is a game for everyone to enjoy. If you don't believe me, watch Will Wheaton's show Tabletop and tell me there isn't something in there you want to try.

In the end, games are all about make-believe no matter what medium you do it through and sports are no different. For a period of time, like-minded individuals come together to pretend that how we throw a ball around a field to reach a certain goal matters. In the end, it really doesn't. The value we put in sports besides the physical is like the value we put in money- socially constructed and meaningless in reality. A dollar bill isn't worth anything unless enough people agree that it's worth one dollar and throwing a ball around doesn't really have any value until enough people think it's interesting enough to charge money for and invest in.

With so many different options available, there has to be a sport for everyone out there.

"Sports" vs. "Martial Arts"

As I mentioned above, the problem with sports in high school and college is that the barrier to entry is pretty high. Even if you make the team, there's a chance you'll be warming the bench almost every game. This makes overweight people lacking the ideal "athletic" body extremely discouraged from joining a mainstream sport at all.

This is why I'm an archer and martial artist. These haven't fallen victim to the institutionalization and commercialization of mainstream sports (even if movies still tend to perpetuate the image that fencing is a sport for uppity rich people. Believe me, it's not!). Anyone can join, your skill level doesn't matter, and the emphasis is on your own self-improvement instead of whether you can "make the team". There can be financial hurdles, but most martial arts clubs allow students to borrow equipment until they can afford their own. Students progress at their own pace and often have more personal attention from trainers since clubs tend to be smaller.

And the rest of world's beginning to notice. The Stoughton Archery club went nuts when The Hunger Games came out and now Arrow is causing huge waves.

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

Since coming to Japan, I feel like I've found my niche in the physical activity world. I'm starting to drop pounds and I respect my body so much more than before. I've found ways to be active that are both enjoyable and continually motivating with instructors that are patient and welcoming. I feel so lucky to have found this great environment to start my wellness journey and I sincerely think we should fight to make something similar available to everyone.

No comments:

Post a Comment