It’s mid-January, and you may feel like a fitness failure.
Join the gym, find a yoga class or lose 10 pounds?
Not a chance.
Go from couch to 5K?
Still on the couch.
Achieve that feeling of euphoria your friends say they get after SoulCycle?
It’s still Greek to you.
Instead of calling it quits for the year, what if you resolved to change your mind-set about fitness?
In his book “How to Think About Exercise,” Australian philosopher Damon Young offers a foundation to fulfill that resolution. As part of the School of Life book series that had its U.S. release this month, Young uses philosophical inquiries to explain how we in the West came to think about exercise and fitness and how that way of thinking is a major barrier to being fit.
“This is one of my motives: How can exercise become a normal part of everyday life?” Young said to me via e-mail. “Exercise is often a fad for buffed twentysomethings or a spectator sport. How can ordinary people reclaim the pleasures and rewards of exercise, over a lifetime?”
Young argues that much of our thinking comes from the philosophical separation of mind and body, a dualism that permeates Western thought. We as a society put more value on intelligence and mental ability than on the body and its improvement, he says. When the body is worked out, it’s to fix a deficiency. Combined with the stereotypes of dumb jocks, it creates “an outlook that sees physical and mental exertion as somehow in conflict,” he writes in his book.
“People are living sedentary lives and trying to overcome this by treating their bodies as machines needing a tuneup,” Young told me.
So what should be the purpose of exercise? According to Young, exercise is striving toward wholeness and a fuller life. Fitness is a quest for character, virtue, beauty and pleasure. The point of intelligent exercise is full embodiment of that, a commitment to working out the body and the mind together.
Young looks to the ancient Greeks, who saw fitness as the way to push themselves physically and mentally and to reap the rewards of that effort. “This is the Greek lesson,” Young writes in his book. “What we get out of the gym is more than a buffed body — it is a more defined version of ourselves.”
That’s great for the philosophy majors on the elliptical machines, but how about the rest of us?
To see how Young’s arguments can have a practical application, I contacted my college friend Jennifer Gleeson Blue, who works as a restorative exercise specialist and personal trainer in West Philadelphia and features her work on her Web site, The Resilient Body. Her focus is on movement, teaching clients to be fully aware of how their body is positioned. Her goal is mindful alignment at all times.
She described alignment and form as the right relationship of parts.
“At the most basic, mechanical level, it’s the intersection, the sweet spot of joint stability and range of motion,” Blue said. “So, in that regard, the right relation of my femur to my pelvis would mean I would have a certain amount of hip flexion and hip extension available to me as allowed by all the muscles, fascia and connective tissue that exists at that joint.”
The right relationship also is the mind and body interacting.
“It takes an unbelievable amount of mindfulness to maintain [alignment]. Even as I am talking, I noticed that my ribs were a little lifted, so I dropped them down. I do that all day. The change requires an incredible amount of consistent mindfulness.
“I don’t like it, and I’m sure nobody likes that. We’re a quick-fix culture, and we don’t want to think too hard about it.”
It takes effort, but thinking about how you sit, stand, walk, do squats or ride a bike can help you gain a better sense of how your body works while maximizing exercise. Ask yourself: What exactly are you working out? Why are you working out? What are your muscles for?
Young points out that fitness implies that you’re fit for something. For some people, that means fit to compete and, most important, fit to win.
While winning is worthwhile, it can create frustration. A common misconception is that if you didn’t win, then there was no point in trying? Young argues there’s a different impetus at work — an inner challenge. As he writes, “the goal is not simply to win but to impress upon the world the stamp of our own existence; to walk away with a heightened feeling of our own enterprise.”
Striving involves pride in our abilities, humility in our limitations, pain and sacrifice in embracing the costs and pleasure in the journey.
Nelle Pierson, the 26-year-old outreach coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, spoke to me about using her bike commute as an opportunity to compete in what she calls her micro-challenges.
“For a lot of people, when they start biking, it can be really hard to get to the top of the hill of their neighborhood,” Pierson said. “Turn that into a micro-challenge. Today, I’m going to get three-quarters up that hill. You can find these little segments of your ride to really push yourself.”
And when you complete the challenge, Pierson said, make sure to celebrate. “Once I get to the top of th the hill, I pump up my arms in the air and say, ‘Yes!’ I turn it into my finish line.”
Will Handsfield, a Capitol Hill resident and transportation manager for the Georgetown Business Improvement District, leads an active lifestyle, having run and swum competitively. Now that he has children, he’s using his bike commute to keep fit. “I’m not trying to make my legs bigger or more shapely,” Handsfield said. “I’m trying to make them function.”
Bike commuting may not be seen as a high level of competition, but Handsfield points out there’s virtue to be found.
“I find nobility in the idea that most of the places I’m going, I’m self-propelled. I’m moving myself with my own energy. I think that’s something we’ve lost a little in the U.S. because it’s so easy to hop in a car. When you do carry your own stuff, it’s a real sense of satisfaction.”
And for a real fitness challenge, Handsfield recounted picking up his Christmas tree on his bike. No joke.
“It wasn’t that hard or that far. There is the idea that you have to get a Christmas tree with a car, and it was fun to counter that. It became my mental opponent, the transportation challenge. I won that one, I guess.”
The satisfaction in physical striving isn’t exclusive to biking, and there’s nothing wrong with gyms or fitness competitions. What is important is your motivation. Young quotes Minnesota writer and lawyer David Lebedoff: “The fact that it takes character to get out of your chair is perhaps the greatest benefit to be derived from exercise.”
The year is still new and there’s time to lose 10 pounds and join the gym. Instead of making those goals ends in themselves, resolve to have a different mind-set. Create a mental and physical foundation to have a healthy year and a healthy life.
All it takes is a desire to be whole.
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