How Fit is Fit Enough?

Can someone claim to be Agathos, to possess Arête, if they allow their physical condition to decay?   The ancients didn’t think so.  Xenophon tells us that Socrates advocated physical fitness as part of the profession of a free citizen.  A youth who was unfit was pathetic in danger and an older man who had never reached his physical prime was just plain sad.  In both the hippeis class of Athens and the equites of Republican Rome it was a disgrace for a man who would otherwise qualify to allow himself to become to unfit to serve in the cavalry.  Obviously this doesn’t hold true if someone is disabled due to illness or injury beyond their control.  Still, for those of us who can engage in exercise it raises the question how much fitness is necessary to be a worthy individual?

Several months ago I took stock of my own fitness.  Of course there were all the usual concerns for a man in his forties.  I had to think about my heart exploding and my prostate exploding and my colon exploding.  Aside from all the standard delights of reaching middle age I was thinking more about the shrinking horizon of years left in which I could achieve Arete in the physical realm.  This is always something I am aware of since most of the guys in my kung fu school are younger than I am.  I have a very measurable standard to work with.  If I am not in sufficient condition then I will never get to the level of practice I would hope to achieve.  Given a long enough time line without the necessary conditioning I simply won’t get there.

So, I looked for some goals to set for myself.   Happily our friends in the US military spend a lot of time thinking about just how fit one ought to be and how to best get there.  Since they have some untold number of experts figuring these things out I decided to take advantage of my tax dollars at work.  I wanted to get the army’s opinion on just how fit is fit for a man like me who wants to be ready and able to maintain my self-reliance, survive and adapt in a hostile environment, and not be totally lame in Chinatown.  Obligingly, the military publishes physical training guides as well as the standards for their physical fitness exams.  You can look for yourself here to see what they expect from someone (male or female) your age.

In addition to the requirements for pushups, situps and the 2 mile run I also added a rucksack march.  The march is a tradition that goes back to the hoplites of Greece and the legionaries of Rome and today is still required of men at arms all over the world.  In deference to the fact I hadn’t been backpacking as much as I used to I set the march at ten miles with forty pounds of weight in the pack in less than five hours on a road.  Roman legionaries marched around 15 miles each day with more weight.  So do a lot of soldiers today.  While I have no particular interest in being a soldier (too old, too uncooperative, too many old injuries) I think it is at least to be expected that a man who is agathos and a martial practitioner should match their basic conditioning.  After all, men in ancient Greece were expected to protect their city by fighting in the phalanx until age 60.

As it turned out, the pushups and situps were not a problem despite an old shoulder injury.  The ruck march went well though that may have been partially due to it being really cold that day in Vermont and so stopping to rest just made me freeze.  The run training was going well but I had some issues with shin splints.  Soon I’ll set goals for another training period to kick up the conditioning level.  I’ll fold the running component back into the program then.

It may be asked if it is really necessary to have a physical standard for following a philosophical ideal.  Does it matter to a person’s worth if they can run a couple of miles in a certain time?  If it is within the control of an individual to perform at the basic level then I think the answer must be yes.  We aren’t talking about running a marathon or climbing Everest.  What rational person would not wish to be able to maintain their independence, their self-defense, their physical dignity and their health?  I would invite anyone to reach the goals for their age range and see if it doesn’t feel worthwhile and enhance a sense of oneself as agathoi.

6 Responses to “How Fit is Fit Enough?”

  1. Excellent points, Joe. And it’s motivated me to get in some semblance of shape as well. Kids or no kids, time or no time, what’s the point of living if I let my body deteriorate before my time? So let me state it out here and now: By the end of May (a little over 100 days from now) I will pass the basic training module of sit-ups, push-ups and 2 mile run for a man of my age. I have no worries about the run, but man, the sit-ups and push ups will be a stretch…!!

  2. I have recently started to take a less regimented approach to practicing. In some ways I suppose I am in less shape. But oddly, I have found that when I do not push myself, many tasks become easier. Like lifting up Sup yut and Win recently, or even Sunday’s chinatown bit were much easier for me this year because of mental intent to take it easy, and some improved technique on how to take it easy.
    In fact, it seems like as our kung fu advances it becomes how to still kick ass, keep healthy and flexible, while taking it easy.
    I also noticed that as I have backed off the kids in terms of regimented training, they have become more functional, even though they’re kung fu may be lacking. Tests have their purposes, but for me I think what is important is too enjoy my time training and to make it part of my life as opposed to a separate test or regimental chore on the side.
    By the way, the people in Icaria live quite long apparently due to gardening, herbal teas, and walking in the mountains to where they have to go. I don’t know how many pushups and situps they can do but they all live until age 90.

    • Where is Icaria? I need to take a trip there I think. Growing herbal tea and walking up mountains sounds nice. If was doing that every day I wouldn’t need to set artificial fitness goals for myself. As it is, if I don’t I’ll just surf the web and read about people who grow herbal tea and walk up mountains.

  3. I decided to wander back, as this is a subject near and dear to my heart and I’m always looking for other takes.

    On the military fitness standards I’ve always been appalled by the “gender norming” but do see that it’s no longer being done for sit ups (still is last time I checked for the NH police academy which I’ve helped friends test for). Um, of course, as a former personal trainer, I know sit ups to neither be a safe exercise nor an indication of abdominal strength. But still used sadly. I can get up to the standard, but it wrecks my lower back when I do, if I tried training regularly doing them I would end up unable to walk.

    Now that my shoulder is functioning again, I do hope to return to meeting the requirements for a man at least a decade younger than me in push ups. We’ll see. The orthopedist seems to think that the shoulder won’t ever be up to that again. I like to prove doctors wrong. ~;)

    And always sad to see no pull up requirements, especially as I also know what happens to people who do just chest work and don’t balance the back work. And well, you know, chins are a vital part of the SCCS fitness standards. ~;p

    • The pull ups aren’t in the basic requirements there. I guess they figure if you can meet the basics at least you’ll be able to function well enough so you don’t fall over if you have to run to a foxhole or something. I have seen pull ups in requirements for some for the elite units (airborne, etc). I do plan on adding those in at some point but one thing at a time. I’ve had some issues with an old shoulder problem as well. Getting back to a reasonable number of pushups was enough for that period of training.

  4. My shoulder problem is sort of new, but it’s shown up before and probably related to a riding accident when I was a kid. Age, however, has taken it to a new level. For mine, I think doing more back work than chest and shoulder work is going to be a key to keeping it from getting like this again (along with sticking with the rehab as well, which is no where near as fun as my heavier training). So, it is not just my quest to still be better than basic that keeps me at those. ~;)

    Again, my past experience training others, has made me realize that for basic requirements they can’t have pull-ups as most people just can’t do them now. Even people who are supposedly fit.

    Of course, living somewhere where at certain times of year the ability to pull myself up a tree has possibly saved my life, I need to get that ability back. The key, of course, is being functional enough to survive and then some.

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