Monday, May 9, 2011

A Sound Body

            I've had this post in my head for quite awhile, but it seemed too presumptuous and too preachy to write. I must have gotten over that, or must have just run out of other things to say, while still feeling the need to write.

            In the same way that I find the way people relate to death fascinating, I find the way people relate to their own bodies equally so. And obviously, there is much relation between the two. The way people relate to their own bodies- how they think about them, how they take care of them, what they use them for, what they expect out of them- says much about how they think of themselves, their life and their mortality.

            I am struggling to come up with a way to say what I want to say about this without spending too much time talking about myself, and I'm not sure I can. So bear with me as I share more about my own personal experiences than I usually do, because I feel it will help illuminate my ultimate point. Further, I think it will demonstrate that I am not naturally inclined towards exercise or fitness, lest some think that make it easier for me to advocate for them now.

            Growing up, I was the fat kid. Not the fattest kid on the block, but definitely in the running. And I was painfully lazy. I hated exercise, I hated pain and I especially hated where the twain met. Not that I didn't spend most of my childhood playing football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tag in the woods, going swimming,  etc., but I did these in the least strenuous way possible. As an adult I learned I have a chest condition that fairly substantially diminishes my lung capacity, which explained much of why running in particular was so painful for me, but it wasn't insurmountable, since I still live with it, and do just fine... though I do wonder what life would be like being able to draw a full breath.

            I also grew up playing organized baseball and football, through all the usual programs. Through much of this, my father was my coach, and although being the coach's son has its own drawbacks, I couldn't have been luckier to have a father who was an excellent coach, an excellent mentor, but not the way-too-intense stereotypical father-coach. However, despite my good fortune in this department, by my sophomore year of high school I had shed all of my athletic obligations. Without even seasonal organized sports to get me off the couch, I quickly got into the worst shape of my life. Only then, when I saw myself getting softer by the day, did I start to realize that I needed a new outlook. There were several things that helped push me towards this, but I will restrict myself to two brief retellings here.

            In high school I took Latin with an old school grammar-and-translate style teacher, and we spent much of our time memorizing famous Latin quotations. For some reason, one of the few that struck me then was: Mens sana in corpore sano- or, A sound mind in a sound body. I had always been a precocious little terd, and certainly thought my mind sounder than most, but the idea that a sound body might be as equally important struck me, resonated, and stuck.

            I think it resonated with me because I realized that this was an ideal I admired in all of my heroes, real or fictitious. Whether it was Skywalker, Lancelot or Aragorn, all of my boyhood heroes were individuals of both cunning and strength, knowledge and endurance. What I also realized was that it was hypocritical of me to admire them, without making any attempt to emulate them. Ultimately, it was this desire to not just admire something but to attempt to live something I admired that gave me the means to rethink exercise as not just a horrible experience to be avoided at all costs, but one of the means by which I could live ideals that were important to me and my delusions-of-grandeur adolescent brain.

           Fortunately, the years have granted me slightly more wisdom than my adolescent self possessed (again, slightly) and I have been able to mold that vision into something more realistic.  And it is this view of what exercise means and why it is important that has allowed me to stay more consistent than the average person. However, I want to be clear, I don't put forth this view as being somehow superior to others, I simply find that it has been helpful for me in maintaining a steady, and I would say, healthy exercise routine, while I regularly watch many people I know struggle with the same. So if you are someone who has always wanted to find a way to make a more regular commitment to exercise and fitness, but find it difficult, hopefully something in what I have to say may be helpful.

           I've discovered over the years, as I've said, that many people have different reasons for trying to stay fit. Some do it to stay healthy, hoping that with good health will come long life. Some do it to look good, because for many people their ego is tied up in how attractive other people find them. Others don't care as much about their ego, but recognize on some level that looking good helps you get what you want in this world. Others exercise because they enjoy eating, but don't wish to gain weight. For many people it is a combination of all of these. 

            And each of the above apply to some degree to both men and women, although often in different balances. So I should say that while I will do my best to keep what I have to say relevant to both sexes, I recognize that it is to some degree a male perspective, although I do not think exclusively so. I also recognize that the relationship women have with their bodies is exceedingly complex, and that as a man, I have much more hope of fully understanding general relativity than I do that relationship. Nevertheless, I will boldly ignore these complications and press on.

          I am far from the most fit or active person I know. I have god-brothers who are triathletes and a friend who regularly hikes in the Himalayas. I have a brother who is my superior at every sport, and a friend who puts me to shame in the water. What I do have, however, is consistency. Since those teenage realizations, I have, in the 18 years since, not gone more than a week or so without some planned and rigorous exercise. My routine has changed over the years; I've gone from running 5 miles and lifting weights both 5 nights a week, to only running twice a week but running 10-12 miles, to running flights of 300 stone stairs in hilly Seattle, to now, where if I can get an hour in the weight room, a ten mile bike ride, a mile in the pool and two 5k runs in during a week, I'm doing really well.

          I've come to realize, in talking with others about why they exercise, that the most significant difference between myself and people who adopt very ambitious but ultimately doomed routines, is not any natural affinity I have for fitness, because I have none, but simply a matter of perspective. Yes, I hope that regular exercise will keep me healthy. Yes, I appreciate it if staying fit helps me look better.  And yes, I love eating. But these are not the primary reason I stick to it. Because doing it for those reasons would make it about me. Yes, being healthy is nice, but I'm 33, and heart attacks are a ways down the road. Aren't they? Yes, looking good is nice, but I'm already married to the most beautiful woman I've ever known, and she's not going to leave me over  a few extra pounds in the middle. Is she?

           Pardon my waxing philosophical, but I exercise because my body is one of the means by which my will is enacted in the world. My body is how I do things my mind sets upon. And my mind sets upon much. But to put this in more colloquial terms, I decided that I never wanted to be presented with something which my mind wished but my body was unable to execute. Of course, there are limits to this. I'm not a Navy SEAL, and have too many other things I enjoy and feel are worth devoting time to to pay such exclusive attention to one aspect of life. (Not that I begrudge anyone who does.)

           But more than even being a tool for executing my will, I've spent some time reflecting on what that will might be. We keep a fire ladder under our bed- what good is it if I can't climb down it one-armed, carrying my daughter or dog? We go boating in the summer on the lake- what good is my daughter's life jacket if no one can swim both themselves and her to shore? My father and I hunt in the fall, or at least we used to- what good am I to him if he is accidentally shot in the foot and I can't double-time the five miles out to the road? If someone tries to assault my wife?

             I might be old-fashioned, but I can't shake the notion that we have certain duties to those around us, particularly those we love. As a parent, I've found that this sentiment has only grown. I personally could never forgive myself if something tragic happened to someone I care about, something that could have been prevented with a little less sloth on my part. This is what keeps me going when I don't want to finish those last three laps in the pool, or that last set on the bench, or the last mile of the run. This is what sticks with me when the desire to stay "healthy" or "good-looking" is no longer worth the pain of pushing on.
             Mens sana in corpore sano embodied an old world ideal that a complete life was one lived in both a fit and prepared mind as well as a fit and prepared body. Life is unpredictable, so preparation is often all we have. Our society, culture and economy have become almost exclusively driven by our mental lives. The result of this has pushed our relationship with our bodies in one of two directions. Either we regard them as sacred temples, and we retch at the thought of poisoning them with salt, fat, animal products, high-fructose corn syrup or red dye #6. This extreme is nonsensical because it fails to recognize our bodies for what they are- the same decaying organic matter as everything else, part of the same compost pile. At the other extreme we treat our bodies simply as the means by which we feed our brains salt, fat, sugar, drugs, orgasms. This extreme is pathetic because it degrades our bodies to mere hedonistic vehicles of pleasure, ignoring the unique role they have in enacting our will in the world. We can have a much healthier relationship with our bodies if we recapture the perspective of the ancient world; Our bodies are the limited extension of our will.

            So the next time you are in a losing battle with yourself over putting on the sneakers or helmet or goggles, it may be helpful to think not just about how you look, or feel, or the guilt you have over what you ate the night before. Because, ultimately, these are weak motivators, since the only person you betray is yourself, and you can't be that disappointed in yourself. Instead, it may be helpful to think of what you and your body are capable of, what you would like them to be capable of, and what that might mean someday to someone you love.


  1. Awesome post.One thing I might add too, is that physical training almost always increases the strength of a persons will. Becoming comfortable with discomfort and being able to push through the weaker side of ourselves that wants to stop has always been a key motivation for me in exercise. Running in some ways has long been something akin to a meditative practice, and is the closest thing to something "spiritual" that I participate in.

  2. Excellent point, Brian. I avoided getting into a longer discussion of the will and what it meant here, because I didn't think I could say it succinctly enough for it not to become a distraction. You've done that nicely. Yes, the will and exercise become a nice little feedback loop, as militaries have known since the dawn of time.