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What the Health-Privileged Don’t Understand: There’s Buildup Activity and Tear-Down Activity

I got a question from my boss a few years ago, the owner of a company I contract to part-time. He wanted me to do some field work that was too physically strenuous and involved sleeping in a small-town motel where the odds of a good bed were poor. I declined the work because it wasn’t worth the pay rate for the recovery time it was going to take. My boss said, “I don’t understand how you can go on these long bike trips but you can’t do field work.” To him, it resembled situational ethics, where the context influences your interpretation of the rules.

That is the misunderstanding in a nutshell right there. “Mike” did not understand the difference between buildup activity and tear-down activity, and that is a key distinction in managing our lives.

Buildup activity includes things that may make you sore and tired in the short term, but that leave you stronger and able to do more in the long run. Tear-down activity just tears you down and doesn’t toughen you up or produce any long-term gain. Many activities that would be buildup for health-privileged people are tear-down for us.

I remember when I got out of the hospital and my mom was caring for me in my home, she didn’t want me folding laundry or emptying the dishwasher—she thought they were tear-down activities that I should be spared. My occupational therapist was adamant that I do these things, as they provided a good, light stretch and improved my range of motion and agility—they were in fact buildup activity. I broke a lot of glasses before I got good at putting them away, and that’s okay, they were mine to break. Folding laundry was build-up for a short time, then became tear-down when I reached my comfort threshold with standing and bending. I made it a game; I would count the pieces and as soon as it hurt, I would stop and go back to do more later, in 10-piece increments, until it was all put away. My current laundry game starting number is 35 (I often nail the whole load on the first try). It used to be 12.

For me, bicycle touring is buildup activity. It wouldn’t be for everyone, and there are elements of it that are tear-down. I definitely experience pain on my bike tours—much more than in my daily life. It’s balanced out by the joy of movement, of travel, of meeting new people, eating new foods and trying new things. Riding the bicycle is buildup to a point, and that distance gets a little longer each year. The posture puts my spine into gentle traction and promotes movement of spinal fluid, especially when stopping and starting. The physical activity of cycling is hugely beneficial. A stronger heart and lungs, strong muscles, and good balance lead to better health and a greater tolerance for tear-down activity. Enjoyment can make an activity beneficial for a longer time. There is nothing morally suspect about my ability to push myself longer on tour than on the job. Perhaps if my job included more new challenges and opportunity for reward, it would be more beneficial.

Tear-down activity for me includes sitting in a chair at the computer, work that involves maintaining uncomfortable positions, like sewing or filing, standing around like you do at parties, writing with a pen, getting in and out of the car (that one is huge), lifting and carrying over my comfort limit, standing and walking past my comfort limit, walking on uneven surfaces, and standing or sitting for long periods in extremes of hot or cold, like you do in some of the fieldwork that normally comes with my job. Everyone’s tear-downs are going to be different, and most buildup activity becomes tear-down when overdone. I once provoked an eye-roll from another boss when I rejected a work request because it involved too much mouse clicking. I can only handle a certain amount of clicking before my reattached hand goes numb, then throbs. Only a massage will bring it back to life; just waiting for it to recover means it will get steadily stiffer and resistant to movement.

Parts of bike touring aren’t so beneficial for me. Sleeping in hostel beds—total tear-down. I do a lot of standing and walking throughout the bike day; I have to be careful to get back on the bike before my legs start cramping or I’m done for the day. Once I was riding my bike home from the transit center in White Rock, BC (26 miles), and I stopped at the border for Customs. They shunted me into a long line where I waited behind people who were getting their cars inspected. There was no option to sit down, even for the elderly people in line. By the time I got processed, my legs and back hurt so badly that I had to take a bus the rest of the way home. It’s good to build your standing tolerance, but after a point it becomes counterproductive.

Now, here’s the kicker for me. If I spend a 4-hour work day doing tear-down activity, like my old job delivering from local restaurants, I am no good for anything else the rest of the day. The build-up activity I need in the form of exercise and light housework, that doesn’t happen. If I scheduled myself on dinner shift and got my exercise done early, it made the dinner shift a nightmare because I was tired going in. It became dangerous for me to drive because I was so drowsy. It was almost a relief when an on-the-job accident (falling, not driving) put an end to that nonsense.

The difference between buildup and tear-down activity is one that people like us understand intuitively, but I’ve found it’s hard for healthy people who have never broken bones, and whose appendages have remained firmly attached to their bodies since birth, to understand. What things are buildup and tear-down for you? How do you educate the people in your lives about this? Will this article help you find the words to explain yourself to them?

What the Health-Privileged Don’t Understand: There’s Buildup Activity and Tear-Down Activity

Kristin Noreen

Kristin Noreen lives in Bellingham, Washington with two cats and her vintage touring bicycle, Silver. Her triple passions are animal rescue, long-distance bike touring, and writing. Her book, On Silver Wings: A Life Reconstructed, is about reinventing her life following a catastrophic injury.

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APA Reference
, . (2017). What the Health-Privileged Don’t Understand: There’s Buildup Activity and Tear-Down Activity. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 10, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Dec 2017
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