Wednesday, October 24, 2018

On "Working Out"

PC: ej Horrocks

Paul is an upper-level executive at a prominent Fortune 500 company. He leads a busy and stressful lifestyle. He's got two kids, works 85 hours a week (not counting time on his Blackberry on nights and weekends), sits on the board of a local non-profit, and still manages to make it to parent-teacher conferences every semester. But he cares about his health. So each morning, he wakes up at 3:30AM and does 100 pushups, 100 sit-ups, and runs 2 miles before hopping in the shower and heading in to work.

Tina is quite spry for 85 years old. She lives in a retirement community, but she's pretty independent still. She shares her secret - every Tuesday and Thursday, she goes to aerobics class. She doesn't particularly like it, but at least it's kept her driving and she can still work in the garden occasionally.

Both Paul and Tina are pure figments of my imagination - sort of. We all know people who fit these molds. And, in our vain attempts to become the "perfect people" we see idealized around us, we often try to emulate them. Who among us hasn't, at one point, pulled a Paul and decided that we'll start getting up early to work out? Or joined a class - Tina's, perhaps, thinking that this will finally put us over the edge? And six months later, we've hit the snooze button, we've quit the class, and we're back to square one. All we've done is given ourselves a little more evidence that we're simply not as good, as dedicated, as self-disciplined as the people around us.

I don't work out. I have no plans to start.

I have two sisters. Both of them are committed, enthusiastic runners - a commendable exercise, in the eyes of others. They caught the bug from our grandfather, a lifelong runner and all-around hero of mine, who at age 70-something, ran his first marathon. It's easy to look at them and start comparing. They're more dedicated than I am. They have more self-discipline. In a sense, they're not only physically superior, but morally superior as well.


See, the thing is, they really do enjoy it. Sure, nobody relishes the thought of getting up and going out into the cold when they're sitting on the couch under a nice warm blanket. But there's a certain sense, during and especially after the run, that it was worth it. 

Similarly, I love hiking. I love the smell of wet earth after a rainstorm. I love getting into "that zone" where I'm working hard and gaining elevation quickly, but still maintaining a sustainable pace. I love the crunch of an inch or two of early-season snow. I love pausing, ostensibly to take a picture, but really for a five-second breather. And along the way, I become healthier, stronger, and more confident in my skills.

Does my enjoyment of hiking detract from its value as an "exercise" regimen? Does "working out" have to be drudgery in order to be laudable in the eyes of others? Why is running an acceptable workout, while Ultimate Frisbee is regarded as a mere game?

I believe it comes down to a misguided, pseudo-stoic view of self-discipline. To me, self-discipline isn't bred from an abstract realization of what the good is, and "what I really ought to do". On the contrary, self-discipline is cultivated in an arena where I have not merely a higher good in mind, but a higher love

What do I mean by that? Whether in religion (we obey God as a joyful response to the love that he has shown us), relationships (we resist the temptation to cheat on our spouses because of the loving relationship we share), or public life (we vote because we thing that those current goober politicians are screwing things up), I contend that we are most effective when our self-discipline and our passions work together rather than opposing each other.

Sometimes you even get an utterly impractical snack at the top! (PC: Clara Gelderloos)
So what does that mean for health and physical activity? Listen, Tina and Paul are admirable folk, sure, but there are eight billion of us, most of whom won't have the iron will of the archetypal hard-nosed stoics described above. Instead, for the rest of us, for us ordinary folk, we need a sea-change in how we think about physical activity. So forget the gym. Forget pumping iron, or getting up to run on snowy roads (unless, of course, you enjoy these things). Maybe it's time to join that Ultimate Frisbee league, or just toss around a football for a while. Go surfing, ride your bike down a country road, or hit the climbing wall for a few hours. 

Don't let popular conceptions dictate which activities are "worthy" or "acceptable". Even if the activity that you choose is not the most rigorous, doing the right thing is far, far less important than doing something. Don't work out. A "workout" implies work, and who wants to do more work at the end of a long day? Rather, just have some fun. Play!

And who knows? On one of those easy, not-very-long hikes that don't really burn that many calories, you just may see a moose.

1 comment:

  1. Amen and amen! The same thing is true for your occupation and your other commitments. If you do what you enjoy rather than do what others expect, you will be more motivated to give it your all and do so with grace to others. That's part of stewardship as well.