Exercise Without Excellence?

A new study has been hitting the news. A hormone has been isolated that mimics some of the fat burning and muscle building effects of exercise. I’m sure I’m hugely over-simplifying or not explaining it correctly but you can see more details here and here.

Obviously I think its a very good thing if this discovery creates new drugs that deal with serious illness. I especially think it would be fantastic, as suggested in some articles, if this helps with muscle wasting illnesses. I’ve watched the effects of such illness over time and it strikes me as a particularly crappy hand to be dealt in life.

What makes me stop and think and make a sour face is the statement that this could lead to an “exercise drug”. Apparently that’s a good thing. So let’s say you can pop a pill one day and it is the equivalent of a solid workout, a practice session at some active sport or a long hike in the hills. You can sit on your butt and watch reality TV or play a video game and let that happy hormone do its work. You’ll be sipping a latte and twittering while staying fit and toned. Paradise, right?

But what about Arete? Arete, defined as excellence, is fundamental to Agathos. Arete is how one displays Agathos in the concrete world of action. In the Homeric epics there are references to the Arete of different activities. There is Arete in feats of arms, horse taming, running, strategy, giving speeches, even managing a household. These all involve DOING something. Can there be an Arete of pill popping?

If I can get buff by downing EXERSOR (you just know they’ll name it something like that and side effects will include dizziness and testicular combustion) how does that shape me as a creature within nature? I’ve spoken about Askesis, the training of the self through exposure to trial. If we figure out ways to give our body the look of excellence without being shaped by the experience of getting there then is it really that valuable?

Look, I don’t love exercise any more than the next guy. Working out and pushing physical limits requires, well, effort. I’m not one of these people that wakes up energetic and radiant in the morning eager for my daily endorphine rush. Actually I find people like that kind of annoying. I’ve had my share of slips into slothdom. But I do believe in the value of what physical experience within the world, in contact with our natural selves, gives us. No pill can replicate that.

Yes, I’m jumping the gun here. Nobody has put a pill like this on the market……yet. Maybe I’m being a Luddite and there are lots of positives to consider. But I can’t help but wonder what sort of people we become without struggle. We are defined by our scars as surely as our pleasures. Nobody who just pops an exercise pill will have any good battle stories to tell.



5 Responses to “Exercise Without Excellence?”

  1. A pill like this would just encourage more sloth and create greater problems down the road. Nothing is without consequence; unhealthy lifestyles will end badly no matter what pills are taken. I for one agree with you; victories without struggle are meaningless. For the last few months I have been engaging in consistent, daily exercise, to great effect. I’ve lost weight and gained in muscle strength, but I’ve also gained strength of character. I’ve increased my mastery over sloth, and my tolerance for ‘pain’ — and I’ve proven to myself that I am capable of more. If I can succeed in all this, what roads are blocked to me? With practice I can learn what I wish to learn, train myself to do whatever I decide I need to do. The person who takes a pill to ‘burn fat’, or simply has the fat removed in surgery, can claim nothing.

  2. Stephen, I definitely agree. Not long ago, a very stressful and crazed period of business issues sidetracked me from exercise and practice. I wasn’t even getting out for simple walking time in nature. Bad plan. Once I started getting back into the routine the effects on energy and general outlook were dramatic. Its a lot easier to tackle the abstract challenges when you can feel good about meeting the fundamentals. Now the trick is to remember that the next time the road gets rocky.

    I’ve been enjoying reading through your blog.

  3. Discovering yours a few weeks ago was a delight for me, as well. Philosophically-minded blogs are the diamonds in the rough of the blogging world.

  4. Wanted to drop a remark and let you know your Rss feed is not functioning today. I tried adding it to my Google reader account but got nothing.

  5. Hello Joe! I really enjoyed reading this post. I completely agree with you.

    There are more benifits from exercise/training than just the physical aspect. I believe the mental toughness, and skills one aquires is equally important.

    In theory, if this drug ever does hit the shelves, I believe humanity is in for some trouble 😉

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