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Modern Fitness and the Philosophy of Exercise

The modern approach to exercise is misguided in many ways. In order to change this, we must understand why this is and how to shift our cultural philosophy around exercise.
Modern Fitness and the Philosophy of Exercise
“Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.”

— Plato, Theaetetus

No one would deny the value of physical fitness and the benefits that come with being in shape. However, exercise for exercise’s sake has become an absurd phenomenon. People working out at the gym for only aesthetic reasons, others pursuing imbalanced strength gains to their own physical detriment, or others obsessing over an unrealistic fitness goal which, in turn, prevents them from making any real progress.

The Absurdity of Modern Exercise

The treadmill is a perfect metaphor for these modern fitness trends, particularly in America—an endless track that moves faster and faster but ultimately leads to nowhere.

The absurdity of it all can be summed up in comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s observations:

“You go to the health club, you see all these people and they’re working out; they’re training, they’re getting in shape.  But nobody’s really getting in shape for anything. In modern society, you really don’t have to be physically strong to do anything. The only reason that you’re getting in shape is so you can get through the workout. So we’re working out, so that we’ll be in shape, for when we have to do our exercises. That’s comedy. I love to exercise, but I still have to laugh at it.”

— Jerry Seinfeld, SeinLanguage

The question is why is this happening? Why has exercise become such a prevalent and mindless obsession?

Why Modern Exercise is Misguided

Is it simply because, as a culture, we are growing more shallow?

As the comedian George Carlin said:

“Regarding the fitness craze: America has lost its soul; now it’s trying to save its body.”

― George Carlin, Brain Droppings

In response to this I would pose the question, has America actually lost its soul, or are we instead just trying to find it?

For instance, the people obsessed with fitness are actually very similar to those who completely reject it—they are both extremists on opposite ends of the spectrum but fueled by the same motivation. Both are trying to gain something that they desperately need, and both are doing so incorrectly.

If we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a psychological theory of motivation created by Abraham Maslow, we realize that both sides of the exercise argument have a fundamental misconception about the role that exercise plays in one’s life.

The need for a functional and healthy body is ultimately a basic need, one that falls under the Physiological category of Maslow’s hierarchy, meaning it is an important and foundational need that we all share. However, those who obsess over exercise and those who say that exercising is a waste of time are both mistaking it for an Esteem need—they both see fitness as a way to gain respect and self-esteem. The difference is that the exercise-obsessed pursue this respect and the exercise-neglecters say that it isn’t worth pursuing and dismiss it completely.

And I’m not saying that being in incredibly great shape—for example, lifting enormous amounts of weight or being an incredibly skilled athlete—is something that isn’t respectable. Of course it is, and that’s why cultures reaching back to ancient times have always given enormous amounts of respect to the physically gifted.

Unfortunately, it seems that our culture, especially in America, doesn’t give many other options to the layperson. Respect has become something that needs to be earned with accolades rather than earned simply by being a healthy, functional, and good person and many people look to emulate the unattainable fitness of great athletes because they don’t see any other way to get the respect that they desire.

It’s no surprise that, on the other hand, people who see this absurdity in the exercise culture reject it altogether. With so much misguided emphasis placed on the importance of being in great shape, many people see the exercise-obsessed as chasing an absurd unreality.

However, as is the case with most extreme dichotomies, the answer lies somewhere in the middle—with a balance between these two viewpoints.

A Balanced Approach to Exercise

On the importance of balance in fitness, Socrates said:

“’There is a man who takes a lot of strenuous physical exercise and lives well, but has little acquaintance with literature or philosophy. The physical health that results from such a course fills him with confidence and energy, and increases his courage.’

‘But what happens if he devotes himself exclusively to it, and has no intelligent interests? Any latent love he may have for learning is weakened by being starved of instruction or inquiry and by never taking part in any discussion or educated activity, and becomes deaf and blind because its perceptions are never cleared and it is never roused or fed.’ ‘And so he becomes an unintelligent philistine, with no use for reasoned discussion, and an animal addiction to settle everything by brute force. His life is one of clumsy ignorance, unrelieved by grace or beauty.’

‘What I should say therefore is that these two branches of education seem to have been given by some god to men to train these two parts of us – the one to train our philosophic part, the other our energy and initiative. They are not intended the one to train body, the other mind, except incidentally, but to ensure a proper harmony between energy and initiative on the one hand and reason on the other, by tuning each to the right pitch.’”

— Socrates in Plato’s, The Republic, Part III

Therefore, if we accept Socrates’ view of the importance of balance in our devotion to exercise, then the question emerges:

What does a well-rounded commitment to exercise actually look like?

Of course, answering this question is a personal one, for we all have different lifestyles and different physiologies and thus require different accommodations and exercise styles. However, it would be foolish not to take advantage of what information and research is available to us.

Understanding the Basics of Exercise

First of all, we need to ensure that we are at least meeting the bare minimum that our bodies require for adequate health, in other words, fulfilling the physiological need for health and wellbeing.

This infographic created by the U.K. government sums up the basic research on physical activity and exercise:

(For different ages and demographics, find more infographics here)

Of course, while these suggestions are just an average, they are a good place to start. If our lifestyle doesn’t come close to these recommendations then that’s we at least have a baseline to shoot for. Building exercise into a life is a process that takes time and dedication, however, while it can be very difficult it is ultimately very simple. The most important thing to remember is that it takes time, patience, and an understanding of the foundations of fitness.

If our lifestyle is already active and meets the recommended suggestions and we still want more out of your body, then it might be important to ask ourselves why. Ask yourself why you’re really dedicating so much of your life to exercise and whether you are simply exercising for exercise’s sake, or if you’re pursuing something that is truly valuable to you.

Remember, too much or too little of a good thing is never good.

Exercise should be something that enhances your life and doesn’t dominate it. It should be something that encourages and revitalizes you and doesn’t discourage or intimidate. Adopt a balanced, functional, and respectful philosophy when it comes to exercise and your life will only get better from there.

As Thich That Hanh says:

“Your body is not just yours. It is a gift and a responsibility.”

― Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Eat

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