Exercise the Life Sentence

Written by Peter Francis and Brian Carson

Somewhere between the chasm of the physically inactive majority and the high-performance minority, reside a lesser known group of individuals who are serving a life sentence. I am one of them, as is my colleague and co-author of this piece Brian Carson.

We share a large cell with many individuals who do not serve a sentence.

Each individual has a desk, drawers and a computer station. The only distinguishable difference between those serving a life sentence and those who are not is a small bag kept beside our work station. This bag contains our inmate clothes, a set of compulsory garments required for a lunch-time in solitary confinement. The clothes are built for comfort not style and designed not to get in the way of our labours.

One hour a day, every day, for the rest of our lives. Missed days are punished. Punishment is self-inflicted using longer spells in isolation or more vigorous torture of shorter duration.

The life sentence we serve is one of regular exercise.

We tend to serve sentences concurrently with others – strength in numbers. At the University of Limerick, I served my sentence with Brian and Will, at Leeds Beckett University with Mark and Gareth and most recently; with Nigel, Dee and Grant at Auckland University of Technology.

Aside from the mandatory sentence, we spend the rest of our time in equally repetitive, tedious but intellectually stimulating work.

Ironically, we attempt to understand through research how the body responds to regular exercise in the hope of encouraging others to commit similar crimes and serve similar sentences.

Our research and that of many before us, demonstrates that this particular life sentence keeps us lean, provides clarity of thought and fosters the resilience necessary to survive the demands imposed by our lives. It can even keep us alive longer.

Alas, there appears to be fewer committing crimes that warrant a life sentence of regular exercise. Perhaps we should focus our research on the crimes we have committed that have led to the sentence? Crimes of athletic endeavour in our youth, an intrusive curiosity, a perverted fascination with what is difficult?

What are these crimes we have committed? I recently asked my colleague, Brian…

We are often driven by a benchmark of what we used to be or what we could be? Being blessed with a reasonable level of athletic ability as a youngster has contributed to my sentence. Unwilling to give up on these attributes and chasing former glories, I am forever chasing numbers or comparing what I can do now to what I could do before. Can I get back there? Can I improve? Setting new more ‘realistic’ or ‘achievable’ targets. Implementing training plans, chasing numbers. That drives the obsession and the behaviour. I am still competing in sport and that competitive nature, both with others and myself, reinforces the practise.

There is also a sense of identity in being someone who trains or is competitive. It is part of ‘who I am’ or what I do. I don’t want to lose that part of me, and that provides some intrinsic motivation to continue with my endeavours.

As Peter has alluded to, I am an exercise physiologist and study how the body, and specifically the muscle adapts to exercise to improve metabolism. This has implications for athletic performance, but also for physical and mental health and the prevention of chronic disease. They say “knowledge is power”, enabling us to make informed decisions. It would be shameful if I were to ignore what I have learned and am still learning and if I didn’t practise what I preach. So, there is a sense of duty which dictates my incarceration to a life sentence of exercise, I simply know too much about why I should exercise, to not. It could also be said that I have become institutionalised, more comfortable in this world than any alternative.