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080 - On Training To Improve - Moral Letters for Modern Times

The side effects of not only being physically fit, but training to become and remain physically fit, are certainly real.
Parallel train tracks disappearing into the distance - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

The best thing you can say about the physical fitness craze, the best thing, is that inadvertently some will come to greater peace of mind by virtue of their training. The side effects of not only being physically fit, but training to become and remain physically fit, are certainly real. This is the case even though these benefits are rarely the original purpose for one’s taking up the training.

“What are these inadvertent benefits of pursing a course of physical fitness?” you ask. Here are some examples that come to my mind. First, we learn how to form habits by observing that the things we repeatedly do become easier after just a short interval of repetition. How valuable to discover that we are not only or even primarily creatures of will, but creatures of habit! The expenditure of will is only necessary to start us off. Once well begun we will continue on our course like a Newtonian particle continues in its direction unless acted upon by another force.

Next, we learn how to overcome adversity by enduring the inevitable strains we encounter in our physical pursuits. We learn that emerging victorious makes us yet more capable. Lifting weights puts stress on our muscles, creating small tears and cellular destruction that, upon healing, grow back stronger. Running and sprinting wears out our legs, but in return builds our ability to process oxygen and improves the heart’s efficiency for all the remaining time we are at rest. Bicycling long distances taxes our tender behinds as much as it toughens our capacity for boredom. Swimming teaches us our skin is largely impervious to water, and that if we can only keep our mouths shut at the right times and in the right rhythm, we can be surrounded by otherwise fatal environments and emerge unharmed. Stretching and yoga remind us that our bodies are also machines, and that it is both necessary and wonderful to periodically pause the abuse we inflict in order to lovingly maintain and care for them.

Finally, in pursuing a measured course of physical fitness, we greatly enhance our chances of living our lives free from avoidable ailments. No diet or exercise can protect us from all dangers, though many convince themselves otherwise, but there are countless self-imposed chains of disease and ill-health that the healthy specimen has broken and cast aside. Do you ask me now if it is also a good thing that healthy habits may also lead to longer lives? Here I am more reserved in my praise, Deuteros. A longer life can be a blessing, true, but living long by no means ensures that one lives well.

For all the benefits I have just listed, there are many things much less flattering that we must lay at the feet of a focus on physical fitness. For one, how many mistake fitness itself for the end, rather than a means to an end? For another, the positive reinforcement generated by focus on the body means it risks becoming one’s sole focus. This in turn prevents attention to the much more pressing task of training the mind.

If we are constantly struggling to be physically fit, how many more struggle to be mentally fit when they do not even know that as much training is necessary for the mind, if not more, to stay healthy? If we spent a tenth the time obsessing on our state of mind as we did the numbers on our fitness tracker, we could be confident in saying all were on their way to well-ordered minds. But just as the pool is not the best environment for deep conversation, the modern day environments we immerse ourselves in are not conducive to the habit of reflection.

Consider first what is on offer to the budding athlete in pursuit of a healthy body. The cyclist has a range of bicycles on display in ever lighter and more exotic materials, at prices ranging from the expensive to the shocking to the unconscionable. Compared to this, the helmet, shoes, lighting, lock, padded shorts, and reflective jacket are but pricy insults, annoying but far from the greatest harm.

The runner secretly laughs because they need nothing more than the open road and a pair of sneakers, right? Nike is having the last laugh here when they ring in the sales from lightweight sneakers that combine carbon plates, foam, and micro-weave into a package so light that they are worth their weight in gold. And this is to say nothing of water-wicking socks, functional shorts, and odor-repelling microbial infused shirts. Oh, it’s cold today! Another jacket or two will ease your discomfort. What’s that? Rain, you say? No worries, wear this hat and that jacket, and you’re right as rain. Sunny tomorrow? These prescription sunglasses will wrap around your head and block wind and stray light; look we have lenses for bright days, for foggy days, for forest paths, and even for nighttime journeys. Wrap your head around all the costs the runner faces, Deuteros, and you will no longer pity the biker.

I myself would be embarrassed to tell you how much I have spent on successive generations of GPS trackers from the likes of Polar and Garmin. I can regale with you far more details than merely my precise location! My heart rate, steps, speed, and cadence. Do you want to know the altitude, how long I slept and how deeply, the interval between my heartbeats, or whatever the delightfully named VO2Max will tell you about me? Before I’ve figured out the hundreds of functions on my current watch of wonder, another has come along with even more features, at an even greater price. Yet for all the thousands I’ve spent on watches now collecting dust and not data, I would spend all this and more if someone offered a device that could tell me not just where I was on the earth, but why I was there. Can Garmin tell me if the direction I am heading is the right one, or am I just running in circles?

I could go on in this vein, but because I know your thoughts and I am kind, I will not. Let me observe instead that among the thousands of offerings focused on the body’s function, I suppose we should take heart that there have emerged a handful dedicated to what is within our heads. Headspace comes to mind, with its laudatory mission of helping cultivate the practice of mindfulness. The ills being treated here are not those of the body, but rather things like sleep, stress, loneliness, regret, anxiety, and more.

Though it is too soon to say whether their offering is mere pabulum or manna for the mind, I am encouraged simply by the fact that this ancient art of training exists in a new form that makes it appealing to the masses. In this instance I welcome the madness of crowds and the folly of following fads. For even though it may be uncritical mob behavior that drives the growth in mindfulness practice, still it is practice of the mind. Can we not expect practitioners to harvest inadvertent benefits regardless of their motivations?

Every day remind yourself that your most important function for living is your mind, and your body is more a vessel for carrying it about. When you have the hierarchy of things in the right order, you will find it easier to devote the time to training your mind and not just your body.

Be well.

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