Fun with a purpose?
July 24, 2008 3:22 PM   Subscribe

I like the mood and health benefits of exercise, but hate the inherent pointlessness of the activity. Short of going into construction work, what are some activities or hobbies that involve physical exertion, but to some other purposeful end?

I had this revelation a few weeks ago, while helping break down a stage for a local theatre: spent several hours lifting, carrying, writhing, running, and stretching, ended up completely exhausted, and loved every minute-- while in the gym, it's as much as I can do to make 20 minutes before my willpower collapses and I'm out the door. I think the key factor was having some immediate purpose to focus on besides just the exercise. If you're building/moving something, well, it's got to get built/moved, whereas in regular exercise the long-term health benefits quickly become insufficient justification for that next excruciating rep. Sadly, my brain has also proven too devious to for most artificial reward schemes-- if there's no point, I can bloody well see there's no point, sticker or no sticker. Plus, I like doing stuff, and would like to be able to do stuff while exercising, if possible.

Since I'm fresh out of friends needing apartment-moving assistance, what might be some other physical-exertion-intensive, yet constructive, activities to take up? For what it's worth, I'm a girl, and super-uncoordinated (can't throw a frisbee, can't catch a ball) so (1) extremely heavy lifting, and (2) any kind of sports are probably out of the question. Suggestions?
posted by Bardolph to Health & Fitness (48 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Are you going to the gym by yourself? I've always found that I did more when there were other people there with me (as opposed to other people there in the room at the same time).

Or you could offer your services to a local theater group. I'm sure they would love free help.
posted by theichibun at 3:29 PM on July 24, 2008

Gardening can involve alot of physical exertion. If you don't have your own plot, you might be able to volunteer to work in a community garden project going on where you live. Shovelling, digging holes, hauling wheelbarrows full of stuff around, helping to grow food is both a full workout and work that makes good sense on so many levels.
posted by frizelli at 3:30 PM on July 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

I hate exercise, but I love to have fun. Therefore:

Tennis. I can play for hours and get a fantastic workout, but never fee like I am "exercising."

Bicycling. It's just plain fun to bike. Bike on errands, or to work, or just for fun.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 3:33 PM on July 24, 2008

Not all exercise is performed in the gym. Go find something that you enjoy-mountain biking, a local pickup basketball game, road biking :D

Even with all of the miles i put in, I've never considered any of it pointless. Whether its hills, flats, or even base miles, its all fun - never work.

I'd consider exercise 'playing' - find things that you enjoy and it won't be exercise any more.
posted by neilkod at 3:33 PM on July 24, 2008

Gardening? Heavy housework? Commuting to work via bicycle?

While others are coming up with other ideas, have you tried regular spinning classes? For me the fact I have gotten to know the other folks in class helps keep me headed to the gym, plus having an instructor telling us what to do helps me too.
posted by konolia at 3:33 PM on July 24, 2008

Commuting can mean cycling, running, in-line skating or even kayaking.

Habitat for Humanity? Volunteer to mow your elderly neighbors lawns?
posted by hydrophonic at 3:34 PM on July 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

Ride your bike to work, to the grocery store, and other places you have to get to anyway.
posted by Quietgal at 3:36 PM on July 24, 2008

I like a long hike with some mushroom hunting or berry picking as the destination. It's like shopping, only in the woods.
posted by HotToddy at 3:36 PM on July 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, also, I trimmed a big boxwood hedge the other day with manual hedge clippers and I swear I can see new muscles in my arms from it. It was surprisingly hard.
posted by HotToddy at 3:39 PM on July 24, 2008

If you like exploring, maybe urban exploration or caving.

Also nthing biking as transportation method.
posted by trevyn at 3:39 PM on July 24, 2008

Rock climbing solves this problem for me. It isn't the same repetitive motion over and over and figuring out the right sequence of moves keeps my mind occupied and less prone to boredom and zoning out. Plus, climbing things is fun, particularly if you climb outside.
posted by strangecargo at 3:40 PM on July 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Gardening or working on a farm. I've volunteered on several farms and community gardens, building lots of muscle and losing a lot of fat along the way.
posted by melissam at 3:42 PM on July 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'd actually suggest joining a beginner-oriented ultimate frisbee league. As a rule, recreational frisbee players are extremely welcoming, regardless of skill level. Also, not being able throw the disc isn't necessarily a total detriment. A lot of ultimate is just running around covering your man. It's possible to be a productive player and hardly ever touch the disc.

My other suggestion would be to do theater or other shop work, since you've already demonstrated that you like it. I managed to stay in reasonable shape in high school by just by being on the stage crew and robotics team. I didn't get much sunlight, but I could tighten bolts like nobody's business.
posted by Commander Rachek at 3:46 PM on July 24, 2008

Dance or martial arts - purpose is socialising and self-defense respectively.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:47 PM on July 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

2nding martial arts and dance. How about Capoeira
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 3:56 PM on July 24, 2008

Do you live in an apartment, or do you have some sort of yard that you can work in? If you have land (or can get a plot in a community garden), you can garden, build landscaping out of the heaviest stones and concrete blocks you can find, plant trees, dig holes and fill them back up, and so on.

If you are in an apartment, what about volunteering with a non-profit that rehabs houses or builds new ones from scratch? Even someone without any skills is welcome, because stuff needs to be moved from A to B, floors swept, and little by little you can learn to do more skilled stuff. Habitat for Humanity is the famous one that everyone knows, but pretty much every city has a few groups doing this sort of work.

Is there a CSA or WWOOF-type farm in your area that would let you swap your labor for some tasty vegies?

Join one or more community theater groups as a stagehand/set-builder/assistant to the director?

My local food bank and soup kitchen are always desperately needing willing volunteers. Some of it is more clerical and less physical, but there is still carrying and lifting to be done.

Finally, if what you really want is to learn how to be more skilled, your local community college will almost certainly offer classes in welding, carpentry, and other physical endeavors that are very hands-on and tough.
posted by Forktine at 4:04 PM on July 24, 2008

Get thyself into a cave. Not the kind where you can stand up and walk around. One where you have to be on your belly, knees, back, elbows. Look up a local spelunkers group and go on a beginner trip.

And nthing everyone else, bike!
posted by collocation at 4:05 PM on July 24, 2008

This isn't a direct answer but I still think it might be helpful. How about doing something constructive WHILE doing mindless excercise at the gym? Easiest example would be listening to an iPod -- educational podcasts, language instructuction, serious books/magazines you wouldn't otherwise have time to read, etc...
posted by Perplexity at 4:09 PM on July 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

I agree that sports may be one answer. The suggestion to join a beginner Ultimate Frisbee league is a good one-- you'll run hard, and a lot, and I've never seen an Ultimate Frisbee team in a recreational league that would be upset about somebody who is uncoordinated. On the contrary, they'll be happy to teach you how to throw that frisbee. (I'm speaking out of my own experience here.)

Alternatively, maybe you could volunteer with somebody to help people who can't do physical activities around their home do things, like moving, or building a fence, or anything.
posted by synecdoche at 4:16 PM on July 24, 2008

Flipping Hades Terwilliger: actually, I do play capoeira (angola). Not everyone's cup of tea though.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:24 PM on July 24, 2008

posted by pompomtom at 4:28 PM on July 24, 2008

Martial arts, for sure. I am the same way. Running, exercising in a gym bores me to tears. Learning a martial art can keep me focused and exercising for hours.
posted by gnutron at 4:32 PM on July 24, 2008

I recently started circus classes once a week, and they do for me exactly what you're after. They are two hours of running, jumping, stretching, land ifting weights (other people). I didn't do it to get fit though, I did it because it's fun. And it is. And even better, you learn how to juggle and do handsprings and backflips and all sorts of fun things.
posted by twirlypen at 4:35 PM on July 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

Tennis is great for a good workout without feeling like you're exercising. Same with handball.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 4:51 PM on July 24, 2008

I have no idea where you live, so this may completely be out of the realm of possibility, but the best fun/workout ratio of any sport I have every engaged in is surfing.

However, be aware that surfing may end up being a larger part of your life than you first intended, and don't be surprised when you start logging on every morning for the latest buoy report and using up sick days for a rare southwest swell.
posted by rooftop secrets at 5:07 PM on July 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by unSane at 5:33 PM on July 24, 2008

Yardwork, using as manual a tool as you can find for the job. Mow your lawn with a scythe or one of those spiral-bladed push mowers. Exploring/walking. Transportation (bike, walking, etc).

They key in all of this is to make sure that you're doing the work, not a machine.

The one problem is that it's going to take you two hours of walking to burn the same calories as half an hour of hard cycling, and you aren't ever going to get the same worn-out/high feeling.
posted by Netzapper at 5:33 PM on July 24, 2008

Volunteer trail building and maintenance is fun and takes varying levels of exertion. Find a trail near you and see whether the organization that maintains it needs volunteers.
posted by Orinda at 5:42 PM on July 24, 2008

Splitting and stacking firewood is the best workout I know. You don't need to be a big guy. I'm a woman and can say that swinging an ax requires confidence and intention, not brute strength. It's intense, it results in an ever-growing stack of wood and reduced dependence on oil, and the relaxed concentration clears and calms an overstimulated 21st-century brain.

Also agreeing with the suggestions to avoid machine help in general.
posted by PatoPata at 6:07 PM on July 24, 2008

This is a little unusual, and I don't know where you live, but maybe change ringing? If you want some sort of intellectual stimulation to boot while doing some sort of exercise, then it's an interesting hobby to take up.
posted by elisynn at 6:11 PM on July 24, 2008

build homes for the poor a la habitat for humanity ?
work in a soup kitchen, haul pots of water, peel potatoes, serve countless meals
become a pedicab jockey
posted by dawdle at 6:21 PM on July 24, 2008

I'm with you - exercise for exercise's sake seems a bit pointless and so I don't really get into it. I like doing things where exercise is the side-effect not the goal.

Exercise as a side-effect of doing something purposeful:
- others have mentioned cycling, but I also recommend walking where that's possible. Okay, it takes longer and doesn't burn as many calories, but it's relaxing, and good (but low-key) exercise at the same time
- DIY for friends - sanding, painting, gardening - all good (and when your place needs redecorating or your garden needs a bit of TLC, you can call in the favours!)
- volunteering (loads of options - check out opportunities in your local area, including outdoors stuff like maintaining walking paths / canals)

Exercise as a side effect of fun - accidental exercise is always the best:
- dancing!
- trampolining - I tried this a couple of months back just because it sounded like fun, and then after the first class, realised that it was a good workout too - and kept doing it because it's so much fun
- circus skills (twirlypen's suggestion) - haven't tried it, but sounds great!
- climbing (strangecargo's suggestion) - so much fun, especially outdoors climbing, and surprisingly strenuous

Exercise with benefits:
- watching your fave tv show whilst on the treadmill. Personally that doesn't work for me, but if you want something gym-related that will keep you interested, then it may be an option worth considering
posted by finding.perdita at 7:19 PM on July 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Thirding dance.

I didn't like exercising either; was/am very uncoordinated and although good at running (during the rare times I actually bother to run substantially), don't really like the seeming pointlessness of running for the sake of exercise. (In addition, I preferred not to be in the sun too much...)

I took up pole-dancing at a dance studio in town, and I really love it. Before I started dancing, I hardly got out of the house or did much physical activity; the classes I took/take were good in the sense that they built up strength and coordination slowly. I became a lot stronger and toned (and hopefully more coordinated...) without realising it. I love learning new tricks on the pole, I like the thrill of spinning around and hanging upside down and all sorts of fun stuff like that. And I like how pole-dancing incorporates both dance and acrobatics. I know it can have a sleazy reputation to some extent, but there are quite a lot of studios out there that offer pole classes for simple fitness and fun. And I made a bunch of new friends through my pole class; we go for practices together and help each other improve. :)
I also took hiphop classes, but didn't 'take' to them as much as my pole classes... maybe you could go for trial dance classes for beginners, try different types of dance and see which one appeals to you the most. :)
posted by aielen at 7:36 PM on July 24, 2008

Volunteer river clean-up came to mind, as did the already-mentioned volunteer hiking trail upkeep. I also volunteer to walk dogs at the humane society, and consider that a workout if I walk briskly, take them uphill, etc (we have a large "backyard"/hill and trail behind the shelter in Nashville). And nothing quite works the arms like a non-leash-trained hunting dog.
posted by NikitaNikita at 8:33 PM on July 24, 2008

I started working with a personal trainer not long ago. She emphasizes a lot of primal movements and puts them in the context of things I do every day. She explains why and when I would lunge, gait, squat, push, pull, twist and bend. For example, I *hate* doing lunges. But, when I do them now, I think about picking up something from the floor, reaching for a spoon that dropped, grabbing my shopping bags and so on. Stuff like that.
posted by acoutu at 8:40 PM on July 24, 2008

Everyone here has such great ideas! Here's one more - try housekeeping. You can make decent money and it ranges from medium to hard labor - depends on how much time/energy you put into it. If you get going and have a range of clients/houses to clean every day or so, you'll be amazed at how fit you can get. Bring along your iPod for even more fun while cleaning.
posted by Lynsey at 9:13 PM on July 24, 2008

Re: Farm info
I'd look at (and for your region specifically) which is an organic volunteer organization. You have to pay to join, but it's the largest directory of its kind. The main caveat is most of the opportunities are full-time or long term. The one I did involved living on a farm for two weeks, which was a vacation for me (haha).

Another thing you can do is google farm + workshare (or work share) + your area. A workshare usually involves volunteering at a farm in exchange for produce like this farm has. You could also call a local CSA (look at to find one near you) and ask if you could work. I'd also look for CSA/sustainable ag organizations in your state. In the upper midwest we have ( which lists several CSAs that accept volunteers such as Blackberry Community Farm "Members are welcome to visit or volunteer. Volunteers are invited to share a meal with us." If it's called a community farm they are probably more likely to accept volunteers. Farms that primarily have livestock are the least likely to accept volunteers because animals have liability issues.

If you live in or near a city, urban farming organizations(Seattle, for example, has the awesome Seattle Tilth) and other groups often run community gardens. Some offer plots for your own use and workshops, others run programs for local children. If you don't want your own plot, the children's programs typically accept volunteers. You could also become a master gardener ( for example). Almost all states have master gardener programs.

The main problem with using ag for exercise is well...winter, because most farms don't work much in the winter. But some environmental restoration groups do similar work in the winter. I've cut buckthorn (an invasive species) in late November for the park district here and that was tons of exercise.
posted by melissam at 9:50 PM on July 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Explore a multisport approach. For example, the sprint-distance triathlons which I've found to be a lot of fun.

Several reasons:

1. You get to challenge yourself by trying new things, which, after the initial uneasiness, is really empowering. (For me, it was open-water swimming; the idea intimidated me. Now, I love it.)

2. People seem generally more relaxed in multisport events; you see competitors cheering each other on all the time. The competition is really between your ears, not your fellow athletes.

3. Gets you out of the gym. During cold, nasty weather, though, you can still do most or all your training inside (for ex., a pool for swimming instead of a lake).

4. Gives you focus — if you know you're going to race in 2 months, you tell your friends about it, pay the entry fee, etc., — you're more likely to get out and get moving.

5. And, of course, lets you mix up the training. Run one day; swim another; bike a third; lift weights and stretch. Mix and match, double-up sessions, train in different places. The variety makes each session more enjoyable.

Good luck!
posted by slab_lizard at 10:49 PM on July 24, 2008

the reason you hate the pointlessness is because what you are doing is pointless.

lifting weights is a sport. form, training patterns, muscle balance, strength v/s endurance, these are all tough things to learn, let alone master.

you don't know what you are doing, that's why you are bored. Being active is good for you, no doubt about it, but it isn't the kind of discipline that benefits in the long run.

i suggest you recommit to the gym. start a training journal. focus on free weights, increasing reps, and building strength. make sure every major muscle group gets trained.
posted by ewkpates at 4:00 AM on July 25, 2008

Volunteer at an animal shelter in the mornings and help out with the cleaning. A couple hours of cleaning cages and sweeping and washing floors is a pretty good workout.
posted by Ferrari328 at 5:31 AM on July 25, 2008

I'm with you. I really have to push myself to complete a treadmill workout. 40 minutes? Even with an iPod, it seems boring though I know it's good for me.

This is one of the reasons I took up Geocaching. You can customize the workout with the cache terrain ratings, and make it as hard or easy as you wish. You get satisfaction of the hunt, and I have found so many places around me that I would never have known existed except for the caches hidden there (even in my own town).
posted by genefinder at 6:35 AM on July 25, 2008

Walk to work. I get an hour a day of exercise, and it takes virtually no time out of my day, as it'd take about as long to ride the subway or bus as it does to hoof it. A buddy of mine was getting ready for a major hiking excursion, and he got in shape by walking 3 1/2 miles each way to work and back. Sure, it takes time, but you are getting somewhere in the process.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:34 AM on July 25, 2008

I do the gardening and yard work. An afternoon of digging and planting works lots of muscles and burns lots of calories. If you don't have a yard, you could volunteer with a local group that plants trees and does other beautification projects.
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:41 AM on July 25, 2008

Can you piggyback on any of your other interests? For me, being into a particular type of photography has sent me on bike rides that were more like scavenger hunts than the rather pointless exercise they could have been. If you're masochistic enough, maybe hiking up somewhere to watch sunrise (or less masochistic, sunset) regularly could be good, too.

I totally get the gym futility thing. Commuting by bike does my head good and gets me places as well as being exercise (although for plenty of bike commuters, it's hardly a cardio challenge, just leg muscles straining), but my big revelation is that my stupid, naive sense of wonder about gravity actually gets me into the pool ("holy shit, I'm weightless!") and keeps me fascinated while I swim a good distance. It's also kind of meditative and I'm a total stressmonkey who finds that hard otherwise. But seriously, no sense of futility, and only a mild side effect of grinning like a lunatic throughout.
posted by carbide at 11:33 AM on July 25, 2008

Try playing Dance Dance Revolution. It's workout no matter what your skill level. There are cheap (as in, free) PC versions, all you have to buy is the dance pad (get the $20 at first).

You can give it a try at your local arcade first, if you have one nearby.
posted by Four Flavors at 3:21 PM on July 25, 2008

I also recommend climbing -- even if you're iffy, give it a try at your local rock gym. Controlled environment so you feel safe and lots of friendly people with infectious enthusiasm for the sport. I can also recommend metal working - making things out of steel, wrought iron or copper is pretty cool. For that matter, woodworking is also fun, but you don't get to use hammers and stuff quite so much.
posted by Chris4d at 3:52 PM on July 25, 2008

This might be a little out of left field, but if it interests you at all I'd suggest trying a bit of meditation in order to provide a counter-example to the work = productivity equation. If you can get into the idea of it, meditation provides you with an activity (mindfulness) which you can sort of overlay over any other activity that you're doing, be it exercise, dishwashing or serving tea.
posted by whir at 2:07 AM on July 27, 2008

You could try contra dancing. You can check this page for locales. Gets me thinking . . . I've got to go back.
posted by pammo at 9:08 PM on July 27, 2008

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