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Animals love exercise... why don't we?


Want to be a little smarter? Have a better memory? Stay mentally sharp? Improve higher brain function? Run. Those who exercise have a mental advantage over those who don't.

"...exercisers showed significant improvements in the higher mental processes of memory and in "executive functions" that involve planning, organization, and the ability to mentally juggle different intellectual tasks at the same time.

"What we found so fascinating was that exercise had its beneficial effect in specific areas of cognitive function that are rooted in the frontal and prefrontal regions of the brain."

The brain-boosting (and prevention of brain decline) effects of physical exercise have been studied nearly to death. The confusing part is why so many humans do not exercise. And this is where we can learn from our pets.

Take a healthy dog and put it in a confined area (house, kennel, etc.). Then take him out to a park or trail, and remove the leash. What happens? Take a horse out of a stall or small paddock and turn him loose in a larger enclosure (what we call "turning out"). What happens? The photos on this page are an example of what my horses do every single day.

Take a human out of his work cubicle or off the couch and turn him loose outside. What happens? Hmmm... for far too many of us, nothing happens. Or we turn around and walk right back in the door and head for the couch or the chair in front of our computer. The one thing that usually does not happen is the kind of physical exuberance--the sheer joy of being able to run and jump--that so many other animals do.


Where did we lose that overpowering desire to run and jump?

Obviously my lifestyle is quite different from my dog and my horses. But of all the differences, two come to mind first:

1) Dogs don't do television

2) Horses don't run for cardio health, weight loss, brain fitness, blood pressure, or anything else but the love of moving.


I'm not sure how to regain that. I run several times a week, but not because it feels good to DO it, but because it feels good to HAVE DONE it. It's the post-run experience I'm looking for, where I can stop for that double latte on the way home with less guilt, and where I have more energy for the rest of the day. It's for later that night, when I always sleep a little better on the days I run.

And of course it's never too late
"If you think it's too late to get started with a fitness routine, a 1999 study by Kramer and associates found that even previously sedentary people over age 60 could improve their mental processing abilities with exercise. People who took part in the study walked rapidly for 45 minutes three days a week. They significantly improved mental-processing abilities that decline with age, and particularly tasks that rely heavily on the frontal lobes of the brain."

I'm sure you've realized that this entire post was just a barely-plausible excuse to show off some pictures of my horses, but that doesn't mean it's not valid. Every day when I take my dog for a walk or play with the horses, I watch them tear around and think, "Why do I have to force myself to do what they do because they love it?"

I did post a few tips last year in my fitness hacks for geeks post, but I've added one more gadget to my personal toolkit--the Garmin Forerunner 201. I absolutely love it (although I wish it could store your altitude changes; it's great for pace and distance, but while it will display your current altitude, it doesn't save it as part of your run/walk history).


One of these days, remind me to tell you all about how cool and special Icelandic horses are. OK, if you insist...Iceland has no natural predators for horses, so they're far less afraid than virtually every other breed (this is the same bloodline the Vikings brought to Iceland 1,000 years ago, and no horse has ever been allowed into Iceland since then). This lets them use their brains for thinking, so they're shockingly smart and fascinating to be with. It wasTim O'Reilly who got me into these marvelous creatures; he and his family live on a hill overlooking an Icelandic farm, and over time they found themselves falling in love with these horses and getting several of their own. He introduced me to his horses, and it was love at first sight. I spent the entire year after that learning about them and searching for one of my own. They're also the most comfortable horses to ride--they have a special gait called a "tolt" that you could ride carrying a full glass of wine and not spill a drop.

The two in the photos are Andi and Kara, brother and sister, who remind me every day that I should get off my ass and run and leap and cause trouble.

Posted by Kathy on April 14, 2006 | Permalink


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» i-wish from 人気Blogランキング[今週39位]
I absolutely love it (although I wish it could store your altitude changes; itsgreat for pace and distance, but while it will display your current altitude, itdoesnt save it as part of your run/walk history). ... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 14, 2006 4:21:50 PM

» When Goals Get In The Way Of Fun from baileyworkplay.com
Well, leave it to Kathy Sierra to inspire me to do something else. She asks a seemingly simple question about why many people (and Im included here) dont like to exercise when most animals crave it. She muses Take a human out of hi... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 16, 2006 1:15:24 PM

» Dances with Horses :: Rider Fitness from i gallop on
What I can learn about fitness from my horse: Horses don't run for cardio health, weight loss, brain fitness, blood pressure, or anything else but the love of moving. ~ Kathy Sierra, Creating Passionate Users While I do remember... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 17, 2006 2:54:04 PM

» Sculpt the body, sharpen the mind from The Bell Curve Scar
Last Friday, Kathy Sierra asked an interesting question Animals love exercise why dont we? and points here to these findings: [E]xercisers showed significant improvements in the higher mental processes of memory and in ... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 17, 2006 4:26:00 PM

» Fazer exercícios regularmente faz bem pra saúde from [ Últimas Palavras ]
É claro que você sabe disso, mas não custa nada bater denovo na mesma tecla. Fiquei quase dois anos sem fazer as minhas corridas diárias e tudo de ruim veio de rodo, sono inconstante, dificuldades pra concentração, pouca resistência física (pra... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 19, 2006 5:18:15 PM

» Bits and Pieces from Cook Computing
Like EricK I've been sick, with a flu-like virus in my case. It wiped me out mentally as well as physically and I had to take a few days off work. Its frustrating when you thnk you have almost... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 21, 2006 6:54:50 AM

» Weight Lifting Exercises from Weight Lifting Exercises
This involves some curls and other weird armYou need to plan an extra twenty minutes into your weight lifting exercises , or is it all just a sil... [Read More]

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» Road Trip Return: Summary and First Geek Impressions from Dave Burke
While it seemed that most of our friends here in Vermont went to either the Bahamas or Disney World over... [Read More]

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"According to a study published in the April issue of Pediatrics, physically active adolescents are not only enhancing their health, but they may be more likely to stay out of trouble"


The thing is we do love exercise, we just love to exercise our minds more.

To put it simply: it is hard to jog around the block while reading Creating Passionate Users.

I think this also explains the recent rise in podcasting.

Posted by: shaded | Apr 14, 2006 3:20:42 PM

Oh and the reason I said nothing on the horses is, words fall short.


Posted by: Shaded | Apr 14, 2006 3:24:09 PM

Another service that I love is: http://www.endlesspursuit.com/

It allows you store and analyze your runs or rides. I use it on my road bike going through the mountains all the time and it allows you to push your limits of courses you have already done by comparing them to each other. So you will really kow if you did that stretch faster or slower than last time.

Posted by: 53x12 | Apr 14, 2006 5:31:09 PM


Thank you for reminding me of how important this is. My husband and I have lost 40 and 30 pounds respectively over the past year and you've inspired me to write about the transformation and the importance of exercise.

It has changed our life.

If someone told you that there was a magic pill you could take that would prolong your life, prevent cancer, prevent diabetes, prevent stroke and heart attack, prevent depression, and prevent osteoperosis you would take it. The side effects are profuse sweat about 30 minutes a day and infrequent growling of the stomach you would rush out to buy the pill.

It isn't a pill. I've just described exercise and healthy eating.

Kathy, you again show me why you are one of the best. Thank you for this post!

Posted by: Vicki Davis | Apr 14, 2006 6:25:55 PM

Kids obviously love moving too. The question is, what causes this to disappear in most people from childhood to adulthood?

Posted by: Julien Couvreur | Apr 14, 2006 9:56:00 PM

Top of the food chain complacency.

Ponder how a lion would react when released from confined spaces. I can't picture it running around for fun.

And by becoming complacent, we open the door for others who are fitter, think faster, etc. to win before we can leave the couch. Just as the lions lost out to a bunch of monkeys from the trees ...

Posted by: Geoff Wilson | Apr 14, 2006 10:31:54 PM


Thank you for a great post. I think you gave the answer in your prior post and in the pictures -- exercise is more fun when we do it with other people. You have two horses that can run with each other, kids play with each other, being face-to-face activates us in ways that being alone can't and the couple in the comment above probably exercise together. So get with a friend, a spouse, like-minded people, join a comfortable gym or hire a personal trainer.


Mark Wilson

Posted by: Mark Wilson | Apr 14, 2006 10:51:45 PM

Dignity. Adults are not allowed to move for no reason. Exercise must have a goal, a distance or be a sport. If an adult just runs wild in a circle or skips across the yard, unless they're playing with a child, they will be admonished and possibly committed to the looney bin. Even with a child, your behavior will be commented on.

Try it, run erratically down the street, you'll be stopped and questioned, possibly arrested. Jog or run in athletic gear with an apparent goal, no problem. But to just run free. To simply move for the sake of moving, without mindfulness, without purpose, society will act to stop you. Being constrained makes movement work, would we move more if we could do it for no reason other than we felt like it?

Posted by: JKB | Apr 14, 2006 11:05:47 PM

Excellent post!

It is indeed true that our physical fitness has a big impact on our brain (after all, just one more part of our body).

I've also observed when I turned vegetarian (ovo-lacto, moving toward vegan) that my level of energy increased significantly and it was like my brain had been fitted with brand new glasses, increasing thought clarity. Very cool.

Posted by: Michael G. Richard | Apr 14, 2006 11:39:43 PM

And it's not just running. Small variations in routine help too. Do things a little differently: change your work environment, cycle to work instead of driving, or if you already cycle, try a different route, etc.

Posted by: Chris | Apr 15, 2006 1:45:34 AM

Why do we not move for the love of moving?
While all the reasons given above (dignity, obsessed with other things, etc.) have a role to play, I think the more fundamental reason is that it's hard for us to move in a way that our mind-body loves. We can get ourselves to move--to walk around, to jog or run--but there's walking and there's walking and there's running and there's running: the horses' bodies are still built for running, or bodies have become adapted muscularly and otherwise to sitting.
For various reasons (esp. sitting in chairs & not doing the right kinds of exercise--or any as we grow older), our muscles and posture get "off" (to be technical), making movement not fluid or fun to our mind-body. The flow of movement isn't just mental but has certain physical prereqs to be fully enjoyed, because otherwise tight this and loose that hinder the flow of our movement, making it less enjoyable (though this all goes largely unnoticed).
When some people see a hill, their mind-body sees the aches and pains--or at least dreadful difficulty--in getting up it, and so we have to force ourselves to go up it.
But once you unlearn some of those body habits and build up other body habits, your legs beg you to sprint when you see a hill in the park so much that if you can't because you're too busy you want to cry. And that is beautiful.

How to get there? I haven't found a single system that incorporates everything necessary.
Some ways I've found of getting there:
1. Yoga 2. Crossfit 3. Intu-flow (rmax.tv) 4. http://kinestheticventures.com/tense_necks.pdf 5. barefoot shoes (haven't found good ones, maybe VIVO barefoot)--as your posture and muscles start from your feet and (virtually all at least) shoes mess up the interaction of our muscles and posture.

Posted by: Jason | Apr 15, 2006 7:52:18 AM

As a runner for more than 30 years, I agree that exercise is required to keep the mind fresh and body going. The best program I have found so far is the FIRST Plan, a three day running routine, with two days recommended for cross training. This provides a good balance for the overall physical conditioning. That also leaves two days during the week to rest and keep up reading to add mind food like the good stuff here and elsewhere on the web.

BTW: FIRST comes out of the Furman Institute for Running and Sports Training and has been written up in Runner's World a couple of times. You can also find additional details on how I have been using it on my blog.

Posted by: Steve Sherlock | Apr 15, 2006 9:05:43 AM

The main problem I see is that in the modern life style, the media encourages us to become passive watcher of sports related activities instead of actively participating them. They spend millions of minutes of airtimes to show super bowl or a great movies about baseball instead of encouraging us to take part in them actively.

Posted by: Razib Ahmed | Apr 15, 2006 10:23:48 AM

After years of expensive memberships at local gyms and painful hours of gerbil-like routines on the treadmill, I have found that the best way to get in shape, loose weight and become healthy was to quit my full-time job in marketing and become a horse logger in BC, Canada for the winter. I lost over 13 lbs and gained huge muscle mass. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in becoming healthy both physically and mentally. Not to mention, you will have a whole new outlook on trees :) Great pictures Kathy!

Posted by: Mary | Apr 15, 2006 10:50:26 AM


What's this about your Forerunner 201 not storing elevation data? Are you sure??? My 301 (mentioned back in your fitness hacks for geeks post) sure does, and I thought the only difference was that the 301 has a heart rate monitor. I think that may be a Mac limitation? :-(

By the way, if you haven't already, you should DEFINITELY check out motionbased.com for storing your captured GPS data. It's very cool (though it may not work well with Safari...I know their super-cool map-player thingy only works in IE). Check it out:


(click on any of the activity names to see the elevation profile)

By the way...it's time for an upgrade. Anyone who likes to ride (cycling, that is), should check this thing out. I gotta have one of these! :-)



Posted by: Dave Wood | Apr 15, 2006 11:20:21 AM

Turn off television: agreed (and sometimes, turn off Internet too ;-) ).

Run: not. If you can, swim. Otherwise, get an elliptical trainer, and use it.

Posted by: Nicola Larosa | Apr 16, 2006 3:15:45 AM

When a set of slow, relaxed posture transitions can make the heart beat like a short, fevered run for a soon-to-be-missed, it makes you appreciate that physical excursion doesn’t have to be un-enjoyable. I find tai-chi to be a great way of re-learning how to experience movements, and begin to learn to enjoy them.

Of course the most effective form of exercise is the one which you discovered, enjoy and are good at. Experimentation is somewhat costly and likely to fail for most mindsets, hence most people don’t try.

Even when you know that the movement will be enjoyable when you are in the flow, it often isn’t at the beginning (or the day after). When the mind is in flow time is perceived to speed up, if this is the case then memory of the flow-time would be becoming less detailed than the long, aching stretches necessary to start, or the pain of stiff muscles after.

Perhaps horses have shorter memories...

Posted by: Ed | Apr 16, 2006 8:07:52 AM

A lot of creatures are naturally sedentary. Others are not.

Humans seem to be quite sedentary, with some of them being very sedentary (these are the super-obese folks who are naturally diabetic). Pigs are like this too: the only excercise they really want is somehow tied to getting food. Some pigs have evolved to live through famine, and are like the diabetic-prone humans.

This makes sense, when you considered how humans evolved. Europeans are very good at conserving energy, which reflects evolving to live well during an ice age.

Asking people to live like horses is quite silly, and won't work. You like to run, so you do it. Hamsters like to run in their wheel, so they do it. Other humans like to eat a lot of calorie rich food and be lazy, so they do it (as long as they can afford to).

Posted by: anonymouse | Apr 16, 2006 9:13:35 AM

To some extent, humans do seek out exercise naturally. I agree with Kathy about running - while I enjoy the feeling I get after a run, I do battle my own laziness where it comes to starting a run (or finishing a run). But my other main source of exercise - surfing - is something I do very naturally. It's actually the only thing I just sort of do. If I have a few spare hours with nothing scheduled, I grab my board and go, regardless of conditions. Motivation is rarely required (and even then it's to get over fear, not laziness). I do have to admit that for me, surfing *usually* isn't as rigorous as distance running (though on a good day my arms may be drained from paddling), but it's still exercise without motivational issues.

Posted by: Geoff B | Apr 16, 2006 11:39:50 AM

It seems to me that Geoff's point is the key -- it's all about doing things that you enjoy doing anyway. If you have to "make" yourself exercise, it will be very hard to stick with it. But if you love playing ultimate frisbee or basketball or cycling or whatever, you're going to do it because it's FUN...you'll end in shape as a nice side effect of doing something you love. That's the way to go.

Posted by: Dave Wood | Apr 16, 2006 4:51:53 PM

Honestly, most people don't exercise because they've forgotten _how_.

Imagine how much time is spent sitting at your desk, reading, writing, talking in conversation. Our jobs don't call upon our physical skills, therefore they're forgotten.

So what happens when someone finally realizes that their health is in decline and they need to get in shape? They join a gym. And they become that "clueless" average Joe that does a couple of bench presses, and then does a couple leg extensions and then leaves 20 minutes later because he didn't have a clue where to begin.

A definitive plan is the only way to stay fit, and that is why I'm developing RunFatBoy ( http://www.runfatboy.net ).

Posted by: Jim Jones | Apr 16, 2006 8:04:14 PM

I have a 4 years girl. And I can not stop looking at her and wondering: where all my energy has gone?
In the moment she is out the door, she is already running or jumping or climbing on something. And she is loving it.

In the evening, when my only wish left is go to sleep, she is playing or running, or trying to deceive me not to put her pijamas on, and she is so full of joy and happy in every moment, and I look at her and wonder: one day I used to be the same, when exactly had I changed? More imporatant, what exactly had changed me?

Posted by: El-Marie Diaconescu | Apr 17, 2006 2:19:40 AM

Everything you wrote about not exercising goes double at work. Most workplaces treat employees' bodies only as a means of carrying their heads from one meeting to the next.

This in spite of the fact that "A nine-month study of 80 executives found that those who worked out regularly improved their fitness by 22% and demonstrated a 70% improvement in their ability to make complex decisions as compared with non-exercisers." (article: http://www.fastcompany.com/feature/confidence.html).

It's not hard to change work from 100% sedentary to containing at least some physical movement, and it makes a big difference, which may also spill over into people's private lives.

Posted by: Alexander Kjerulf | Apr 17, 2006 2:20:26 AM

I think too many people don't exercise because they see it as hard work. They come to conclusion they need to lose weight, and so they force themselve to, say, go running and hate every minute of it.

I used to run, and hated it, so I started swimming and love every minute of it. You can't keep me out of the pool (I make excuses to get out of things so I can get to the pool) while when it came to running any excuse was enough to put me off. If you find a sport that you love and are "passionate" about you will stick at it no problem. I think swimming is a good example because its such a technical thing - there is always something about your stroke that you can improve no matter how good you are, so you get those rewarding "I rule" moments from time to time (along with the "I suck" periods when you realise you really have to change something you have been doing wrong for years)!

Posted by: Stephen | Apr 17, 2006 1:03:42 PM

My 13 year old daughter has autism, and so she basically doesn't have the social emotions that restrict most people. She just doesn't care if she "fits in" or not. She will happily run around giggling whenever she's in an open space. Sometimes this will seem appropriate like a park, and sometimes not, like the mall.

A stranger's reaction to seeing a mostly full grown person act this way is usually one of three things: they smile, perhaps even a little enviously ("I wish I could be so carefree"); they scowl and look annoyed ("Why doesn't somebody do something about that wild kid?"); they try and pretend like its not happening.

Teenagers sometimes have a fourth reaction -- they mock her to their friends ("Did you see that freaky kid run by?")

I think it is that development of those social instincts in puberty that govern this. Little kids run around willy nilly, but teenagers only do it in limited situations, and adults basically never really let go, they require a structure to make it OK.

I think this is one of the reasons that owning a pet is so useful, it gives you a structure within which you can be as carefree without having to actually regress yourself.

Posted by: Charlie Evett | Apr 17, 2006 3:07:57 PM

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