Physical exercise is not a national craze in Thailand as it is in the US. For one thing, it’s just too darn hot. To beat the heat, Thais like to stretch out on bamboo platforms under their houses or trees during the hottest part of the day. Actually, Thais excel at napping. You can find them catching a snooze anywhere there’s a bit of shade—even under a truck.
A much as I love to nap, I also feel the need to move my body, even in steamy climates. So when I was in the Peace Corps, I would ride my 10-speed not only to work with farmers in villages a few miles from my office, but also for fun. Thais would inevitably stare as I passed on my bike (remember I am a 6-foot blonde), shouting and waving. When I responded to the ubiquitous greeting, “Bai nai?Where are you going?” with a cheery “Out for exercise!” hoots of surprise would follow. I’m sure they were thinking, “That crazy farang (foreigner)!” Such was the general view of exercise—something only (crazy) foreigners do.
There is an exception to the no-exercise rule. If you find yourself in a leafy green city park early in the morning when the air is still relatively cool, you will likely find a group of middle-aged and elderly ethnic Chinese practicing Tai Chi, moving in unison with grace and focus. While Tai Chi originated as a martial art, it is now considered a pathway to health, especially for managing chronic illnesses. Even my own aged parents joined a Tai Chi class at their local YMCA, and though it didn’t afford the close connection to nature that Tai Chi values, it did help with their arthritis.
Besides the fact that it’s usually too hot and sticky in Thailand to move more than necessary, most rural Thai people don’t need extra exercise—they get it all day long. Much agricultural work still requires hard physical labor: guiding a plow behind a water buffalo, transplanting rice and picking cotton by hand, harvesting sugar cane with a machete or soybeans with a scythe (I’ve done all of these myself, except plowing, and I can confirm that it’s back-breaking work). Many household chores are also done without the machines so common in my neighborhood; there are no washing machines or dryers, dishwashers, food processors, leaf blowers. These jobs are all done by people power instead. Luckily the average Thai doesn’t have to walk miles to fetch water like some do in India or other less developed countries. Still, for sixty percent of the Thai population who lead an agrarian life, life is physically demanding. That’s why so many young people are eager to escape their villages for the cool refuge of an office job. Well, that and the paycheck.
Like other rural livelihoods, daily life for Srisa Asoke residents is labor intensive. While I lived there, daily activities included growing, processing, and preparing food; making other necessary goods like natural soap, shampoo, medicine, fertilizer, and clothing; and taking care of personal chores like laundry and sweeping. All without motor operated machines (except the rice mill).
I should also mention that most Srisa Asoke residents had left behind their vehicles when they came to live in the community, so they relied on their feet and shared bikes to get around the community. I imagine this was quite a sacrifice at first. Only the poorest Thai people cannot afford at least a motorcycle, and they take them everywhere. It is not uncommon to see a family of four piled on a small scooter on their way to school or the market, places that seem to me to be within walking distance. When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, I even had a Thai co-worker who would drive her motorcycle every morning 50 yards from her house to our office. This is undoubtedly why Thais were so surprised to see me riding a bike for fun. It’s also one of the many reasons that Srisa Asoke residents have seemed so strange to mainstream Thais.
Clearly for those who rely on a subsistence livelihood, physical activity is necessary. In Asoke communities, all residents commit to laboring four hours for each meal (in addition to housing and all the other benefits of the community). This rule also applied to the American researcher. Srisa Asoke’s collective organization meant that individuals didn’t have to engage in every task required for subsistence (most didn’t have to cook, for example), but we were no less active for it.
But the question remains, why sign up for hard physical labor in the first place? Many Srisa Asoke residents had left coveted office jobs with air-conditioning and adequate paychecks to immerse themselves in agrarian self-reliance. Farm labor was a choice, not a necessity. So what was the motivation?
When I asked, residents invariably spoke about a larger purpose. In general, Asoke members advocate a return to “living off the land” because it’s what their ancestors did. They view farming as a quintessentially Thai way of life that is no longer respected, and they aim to renew appreciation for it. Srisa Asoke residents explained that they wanted to set a good example for their fellow Thais, to show them how to improve their health, get out of debt, and feel good about themselves. This larger purpose likely motivated residents who were less suited for farm work, like Chuan—a slight, soft-spoken 52-year-old former teacher. Chuan acknowledged he didn’t have much strength, but he was happy to contribute what he could to help Thai society. An observer would be right in thinking that if Chuan could do it, anyone could.
The larger purpose for any physical activity at Srisa Asoke (not just farming) is, of course, connected to their Buddhist practice. The Asoke slogan, “Consume Little, Work Hard, and Give the Rest to Society” shows just how important labor is. Hard work or diligence is an important Buddhist virtue, included in the Buddha’s nine ideal characteristics for lay people. Than Din Thaam, one of Srisa Asoke’s resident monks, illustrates that virtue with an image of an ideal society: “What if all people in the world were as hardworking as Asoke people?” This meaningful connection to a higher purpose is clearly what keeps the Asoke folks moving day after day.
Lesson: Integrate exercise into daily life and find motivation in meaning.
Americans are certainly no strangers to physical exercise, though we seem to favor working out at fitness clubs. Just after New Years in 2017, Google searches for “improved health” saw a 315% increase in more specific queries for gyms. Unfortunately, this intent doesn’t always translate into action. According to the CDC, a whopping 80% of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of physical exercise (a mere 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity—at least a brisk 30-minute walk 5 days a week). Children are fairing even worse: they have higher exercise needs than adults—the CDC says a full hour every day—yet according to the 2016 United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, only 21% of American kids meet this guideline, earning a D- on overall physical activity. It’s clear that we simply need to move more, and to make sure that happens, we might want to ditch the gym and take a more natural, meaningful approach.
Longevity expert Dan Buettner agrees. In fact, Buettner and a research team from National Geographic found that naturally-occuring daily exercise is one of the nine practices shared by the world’s longest living people. Their research was conducted in the so-called “Blue Zones,” where the highest concentrations of centenarians live: in Sardinia, for example, where “people not only reach the age of 100, they do with extraordinary vigor. Places where 102 year olds still ride their bike to work, chop wood, and can beat a guy 60 years younger than them.”
And, Buettner reveals, not one of these centenarians exercises…at least not in the way we conceive of it. Instead, their days are a constant stream of physical activity. As Buettner describes in his TED talk:
Sardinians live in vertical houses, up and down the stairs. Every trip to the store, or to church or to a friend’s house occasions a walk. They don’t have any conveniences. There is not a button to push to do yard work or housework. If they want to mix up a cake, they’re doing it by hand. That’s physical activity. That burns calories just as much as going on the treadmill does. When they do intentional physical activity, it’s the things they enjoy. They tend to walk, the only proven way to stave off cognitive decline, and they all tend to have a garden. They know how to set up their life in the right way so they have the right outlook.
The “right outlook” might be something like: If you want to keep living, keep moving. And that’s so much easier when physical activity is built into the daily routine.
In terms of connecting physical activity with higher purpose to boost motivation, scientists are beginning to understand how that might work. In a study published in 2010 in the Journal of Health Psychology, researchers at the University of Colorado Denver found that people who reported having a stronger sense of purpose in life were more physically active. One of the co-authors, Stephanie A. Hooker explained in an interview with Time,“Reminding yourself what gives your life meaning and purpose, and connecting that to why you want to be physically active, could improve the chances that you stick with it.”
Getting a bit more technical, Dr. Lindsay Duncan of the University of Western Ontario’s School of Kinesiology led a studyof over 1000 regular exercisers to uncover their motivations. The study applied self-determination theory, which posits that human motivation lies along a continuum of autonomy from intrinsic motivation (engaging in the behavior for the sheer satisfaction of it) to extrinsic motivation (broken down into four distinct degrees). Duncan and her colleagues found that the most autonomous degree of extrinsic motivation—“integrated regulation”—had the greatest influence on exercise behavior. Duncan explains that integrated regulation has to do with an “individual’s belief that a behavior is an important part of his or her identity and is consistent with his or her personal values.” For example, a woman who considers herself an environmentalist might enjoy hiking in the woods—hiking then reinforces her sense of who she is and what she values. So if we can link our physical activity to our core self, we are more likely to do it.