Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 6

Urban Ranger

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everyday systems.com. Today I'm going to talk about Urban Ranger, a system for convincing yourself to build the habit of purposeful walking. It's probably the everyday system I'd choose if I had to pick just one, because it's at least as good for the mind -- for the soul -- as for the body.

You've probably heard a million things about how great an exercise walking is supposed to be. You don't need to be sold on that. Everybody knows that. Even McDonald's is giving away pedometers with their happy meals. (which is probably a really bad sign. by the time McDonald's gets virtuous you know things must have gotten very bad indeed.)

What you need, then, is something to get you fired up about this humble, uninspiring activity, so you'll actually do it. You need to convince yourself that walking is not some last ditch compromise shadow exercise, but that it's profoundly ass kickingly exciting. That's where urban ranger comes in. It's like a role that you play, an alter ego. A way of re-imagining yourself so that walking becomes the most important, the most exciting thing that you could possibly be doing. Sound excessive? If you're like me, that's what it's going to take to get you walking at all.

I hate to do this to you, but I'm going to have to read you a poem to make you understand. Bear with me. It's short.

Song of the Urban Ranger

I am an urban ranger,
I walk, it's what I do.
The city is my wilderness,
Sky scrapers are my trees.
I hang my thoughts on lamp posts,
And park my dreams in metered spots.
I populate the empty lots
With my good ghosts,
And invest the pavement
with diamond recollections.
Exertions are my exercise,
My labors for effect.
I walk to go and go to walk.
I walk to work and work that I might walk.
I walk to dream up orders
For my servile sitting self.
No stagnant sedentary thoughts
Shall rule this life.
But who knows what's for what.
I sure walk a hell of a lot.

Poem done. As a poem, I admit it's pretty awful. But hey I'm a computer programmer, this the Internet, and you know the genre of exercise poetry is not exactly overcrowded. Think of it as a jingly, somewhat out of order table of contents for what I'm about to tell you.

First item in the table of contents: "Exertion vs. Exercise"

Think about it. We've invented one class of machine to spare us physical exertion -- all our labor saving devices -- and another class of machine to inflict it back on us again, but infinitely more boring, painful, and useless manner. We view it as the triumph of our age that work no longer means labor, that we can burn fossil fuel instead of living muscle. And then we berate ourselves that we don't labor in our leisure time, that we don't spend our freed hours in that torture chamber, the gym.

The problem is that labor isn't something we can really afford to save. If we don't pay it out up front, working usefully, we have to pay it back later --- in boring contrived pretend work. Which, if you could actually convince yourself to do it, would be at least as time consuming as real work. But most of us don't bother much with the pretend work either. We just prefer to get fat and sick.

So you probably don't go to the gym, or strap yourself to the bike machine, or grind the cartilage off your joints jogging around the track, as often as you think you should, if at all. You suspect that your problem is a deficiency of willpower. Well, you're off. Your problem is you are squandering willpower on a hopeless task: exercise divorced from purpose. The solution: purposeful exertion; in particular, walking.

You probably can't kill a caribou for dinner, or plow a field, or do most of the useful work that your ancestors did for thousands of generations. But you can still walk. And believe it or not, walking is enough.

Walking is still useful. It's interesting and pleasant. You can think and observe while you walk. You get somewhere. You don't need any special equipment or outfits. It provides great health returns on very little investment, without the risk associated with high impact activities. And you can do it for the rest of your life.

Next item in the poem: paraphrased, When should you walk?

Walk to and from work. If you work too far from home to walk the whole way, practice the noble sport of distance parking and walk part of the way. Walk to run errands. Walk up stairs instead of taking the elevator or escalator. This is urban mountain ranger. Walk during your lunch hour. Walk when you've got cell phone calls to make. Walk to listen to an audiobook. Walk when you're depressed. Walk when you don't know what to do next.

The question should be "when shouldn't I walk?" Walking is the default activity. It's everything else that needs a justification.

That's the pep-thought, at least. Do what you can do.

Even in the suburbs you'd be surprised at all the places you can walk to. You can be a suburban ranger. People often don't realize how close the places they always drive to really are. Explore, give it a shot. Be bold, you're a ranger. The less hospitable the terrain, the more the glory.

And don't worry about having any special walking technique or gear. Just walk. For the sake of your own dignity and the beauty of the world, please don't put on any silly outfits and pump your arms like a maniac. Just dress and walk normally. That 5% extra health benefit or whatever that you supposedly get from pumping your arms won't mean a thing when you stop after 3 months because you are tired of looking like a bozo. You'll unconsciously get faster as you do it a lot. So relax.

Last item from the poem: "Orders for your Servile Sitting Self"

Nietzsche wrote:

"A sedentary life is the real sin against the Holy Spirit. Only those
thoughts that come by walking have any value."

You are smarter when you walk. It's not just the physical movement, it's the changing scenery around you. I bring a digital voice recorder along to capture my brilliant ideas, to-do lists, and diaryesque inanities. Once a week or so I transcribe it to my computer. I thought of most of the other everyday systems like this, while walking.

So do you still think walking is for wusses?

Look, If you put on bright blue sweatpants and pump your arms a lot, going nowhere with a big goofy grin on your face, sure, I'll grant you, it's for wusses. But that's not the kind of walking I'm talking about.

Remember Strider, in Lord of the Rings? They didn't call him Sneaker or Sprinter or Sworder, though he possessed these skills in abundance. His distinctive quality, the important, even lethal skill, for which he was named, was that of walking rapidly and mindfully over great distances. Not only could he could outpace his enemies, by his walking reconnaissance, he came to outknow them.

Well, you might object, that's fantasy. OK, skeptic, how did the army of Alexander the Great get to India from Greece? They walked. How about the Grande Armee of Napoleon, how did they get all the way from Paris to Moscow? Not on the Concorde. For thousands of years winning a war was largely a matter of being there before your enemy. So get the aqua sweatpants out of your mind, this is man stuff!

That's all for today. Next week I'll talk about Weekend Luddite, a system for distraction management. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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