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015 - On Exercise Routines - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Your body is a machine that deserves tending to be sure, but are you the engineer or merely a mechanic?
Great Wall of China - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

It is normal to want to be fit. A sound body is a worthy goal, but your aim must be to master the body and not to become its servant. Your fitness tracker faithfully counts your steps for you, but do you not feel its electronic whip if you falter? Many are consumed by consuming daily their avocado toast, fruit smoothie, and lean protein. Your body is a machine that deserves tending to be sure, but are you the engineer or merely a mechanic? Do not lean too far into the role of perfect tender, lest you neglect the values that are truly dear: the vessel is not the content, no matter how fine.

When people think of fitness, it is usually only physical fitness that springs to mind. We all know people who have entered into a holy pact with themselves to maintain the temples of their bodies. From their Spandex shorts and functional outerwear, to their latest sports watch and space age shoes, their commitment is apparent to all. And though it is appropriate to preserve the body, we should reserve our worship to another less visible kind of fitness: that of the mind. Mental fitness is the proper goal for the philosopher. Lacking a solid mental foundation, the hyper-athlete is no more than fast-twitch muscles under hormonal orders. What use is it to run a marathon a month if your direction is aimless?

I will tell you, Deuteros, how to keep your body in shape, without encroaching on the time and space necessary for your mental athletics. You will recognize the truth in what I say because you have heard me say it before: follow systems rather than goals and leverage continuous improvement principles. Your systems are simple daily habits that you inculcate and then let run routinely, without any exercise of willpower. Feel free to walk the length of the great wall, but do it a few kilometers each day as part of your normal routine. Stock your household with nourishing food and drink, not indulgences. What comfort can you take from “comfort” food, if it leaves you steadily less fit each time you pamper yourself? You should eat to live, not live to eat.

The dedicated athlete will need all manner of supplements to maintain performance: protein shakes to build muscle torn down by stress, electrolytes to replace salts lost to sweat, magnesium for cramps brought on by overuse. In both exercise and eating, you gain most by reducing. Short, focused sessions of intense activity (high-intensity interval training), together with eating less frequently (intermittent fasting). Your body is a most wonderful machine, capable of self-repair the best auto mechanic could only dream of. But to do its work, the body needs stillness and rest.

“Am I to lounge about,” you ask, “doing nothing all day before heading to an early rest?” Not at all, for strenuous effort is still required of the sincere student. Expend your effort, however, in being mentally strong and thinking deep thoughts. Just as habits and routines are the keys to unlocking physical fitness, so too are they the tools to building mental strength. Establish and follow rituals in which you think, read, and write. The more you bend the mind to following these habits, the more eagerly will your mind take to the tasks you put before it. And because mindfulness does not require idleness, you can attend to your mental training while also going about the business of maintaining the physical machine. A meditative walk is good medicine for both the body and the soul.

I grant you now another boon, which is an insight from that most dedicated athlete of the mind and fellow Stoic, Marcus Aurelius. Let it serve as a reminder to us that all we need for successfully exercising the mind and body is within our grasp at all times:

If you work at what is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, you will live happy.

I wish for you to live happy, and so I will extend this thought a bit further. When you expect nothing and fear nothing, it means you already have all that you need. There is nothing that you need to attain to be successful. You may give yourself no small comfort by remembering how much you have already attained, and how this puts you ahead of the vast multitude of people on the earth. Be grateful for what you have, but be more grateful for who you are.

Be well.

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