Archive for Fitness

Exercise Without Excellence?

Posted in Agathos, arete, Homeric with tags , , , on January 16, 2012 by Joe Callahan

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.



A Martial Arts Show Gives Me A Little Perspective Shift On Age

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 21, 2010 by Joe Callahan

The other night I caught a show on the History Channel tracing the life of Miyamoto Musashi, arguably the most well known of Samurai swordsmen.  The show was hosted by Mark Dacascos.  Dacascos is a martial artist and actor who has popped up in a number of action flicks over the years.  I recognized him primarily from the strange but entertaining film Brotherhood of the Wolf (How could a martial arts/gothic horror/romance movie set in 18th century France not be a little strange?).   This show was a film journal of his travels around present day Japan as he explored Musashi’s life.  It was interesting and worth checking out but I was really struck by Dacascos himself.  Near the opening he mentions that he was born in 1964, one year after me.  As of the filming of this show last year he was 44.  That caused me to blink a couple of times.  Dacascos is in great condition.  When he is practicing during the show he is obviously still a very talented and athletic individual.   He surely didn’t look 44.

Maybe he has some fabulously lucky genes in his Japanese/Filipino/Irish ancestry.   Maybe he has had more plastic surgery than a Beverly Hills trophy wife.  None of that would be a substitute for what is obviously a lot of physical self-discipline.  Admittedly, Dacascos came from a family of martial artists and has been at this full time since he was a young boy.  He isn’t sitting on his butt behind a desk 40-50 hours a week.  He does this for a living.  Still, he must not be out partying till dawn and living on fried foods either.  That isn’t really what mattered to me.  For me seeing his birth date was yet another in a string of occurrences forcing me to reexamine my perceptions of my age and what it means.

Recently I took part in a demonstration with my kung fu school.  The event was a yearly banquet in Chinatown for a federation of kung fu schools.  I am not a big fan of doing kung fu demonstrations especially when the audience is made up of other practitioners some of whom are masters from China.  My negative perspective on this may be a little warped because I practice mostly with notably younger men who have been training religiously from an early age.  They just plain ‘ol look better.  It doesn’t help that our uniforms are traditional red and yellow Shaolin outfits.  Young Chinese men look like dashing monks.  I look like a degenerate Ronald McDonald who’s been fired for drinking on the job (remember Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa?).  Putting aside self-consciousness and criticism (and fashion vanity) I actually did pretty well.  I demonstrated three forms from our style and received some very encouraging positive feedback.  It wasn’t half bad.  Well ….. not bad for a 46 year old guy I told myself.

We all have to watch out for playing mind games with ourselves.  We come up with rationalizations for not pushing towards certain goals or running certain risks.  There is a part of our psyches that prefers short term goals and immediate gratification.  It will come up with some excellent ways to convince us we really are better off kicking back with a pint of Guinness instead of running a mile or two.   In my case I have sold myself the story that I am getting to be a little over the hill.  Why beat myself up over accomplishing things that are no longer within reach?  It is a seductive excuse.  I can also see it at work in other areas of my life aside from physical training.

This doesn’t mean I’ll now be spouting platitudes like “You’re as young as you feel” or “Forty-five is the new Thirty-Five”.  I am at a different point in my life and my body has indeed changed from fifteen or twenty years ago.  I do not want to replace one fantasy with another.  The Stoics taught the importance and the discipline of seeing things as they are.  My reality is impacted by the passage of time and aging, of course.  But not as much as I have been telling myself.

A lot more is within my control than I may want to admit because knowing that requires action.  It is an awareness I would do well to keep in the front of my thoughts.  Putting that awareness into action however requires the development of habits and that is a subject for another post.

How Fit is Fit Enough?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on February 8, 2010 by Joe Callahan

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.