On Physical Fitness

01 June, 2016


In the spring of 2011, I became very motivated to get fit. I had gained a bit of weight due to poor diet and lack of exercise in the previous year, and I felt uncomfortable in my body for the first time since fifth grade, something I do not recall in any detail beyond a single picture and all the corn dogs I used to eat.

Catalyzed by a single unflattering picture posted to Facebook, I began eating more carefully, which, combined with regular exercise--primarily running and push-ups--restored much of my self-esteem. That summer I continued those two practices, adding jump roping into the mix, and in the fall I replaced the cardio with weight lifting, adding muscle to my frame.

For the next two years that habit of exercise turned into a passion. In retrospect, it was clearly an obsession. I enjoyed thinking about exercise, how to do it better, how to eat healthy, how to be healthy--it was unhealthily consuming. I'm no longer so interested. While I still exercise three days a week without much interruption besides vacation and travel, I cut down on my time in the gym by 50-75%. I do not think much about fitness when I am not actively exercising, or even when I am. While I used to read blogs and websites dedicated to health and fitness and exercise, today I regret most of that time spent--and it was a lot of time--and when I stumble upon, for instance, someone's social media feed filled entirely with pictures of food, yoga poses, exercise videos, etc., I feel embarrassment at what I recognize as the all-encompassing nature of the interest. Don't you have anything else to share? And perhaps I am projecting, but my thoughts do not allow for a generous, gracious explanation of what I see as a debasing fixation on physical improvement.

I mention all this not as cathartic confession, but to provide context. I still have strong views on health and fitness, but am usually loathe to speak about them unless asked. Given that I have those strong opinions, though, it makes sense to write about them.

Exercise is a good habit to have, but it's very easy for that to become a person's most overriding interest, because we know it is a good thing to do, so it follows that more is better. But I think that is a trap.


Is there anything, besides our jobs/occupations/careers, that engenders a wider range of positive and negative emotions than fitness? For some, it is indispensable, what gives meaning to a life, possibly one's only passion, an unqualified good thing.  For others, it is hateful, wholly undesirable, tedious, something to be (and is) avoided. And most everyone else falls somewhere in between.

No matter where you fall, you can find some piece of writing, some collected wisdom, to justify your position, whether it is for or against.

You could probably say the same thing about many different pursuits, passions, and hobbies, but fitness represents something vital, quite literally: it's about our bodies, our physiology, our health. This is why, even if we don't like it, we think it's important. This same quality is what makes the regular exerciser feel virtuous, and the one who abstains feel guilty for not doing it enough (if they do it at all).

This may be why an academic and their fitness-oriented colleagues speak of their devotion in "hushed tones," if at all: because they probably have some reservations about what it means to find solace in exercise. However, the article does not give that impression. It instead focuses on criticisms levied on the fitness industry by other academics and writers, which are very wide-ranging. The author also writes about how they were concerned about how, if people were to find out about their interest in fitness, they might think less of their serious and studious intellectual self. There's an unspoken ambivalence present, in that someone who fashions themselves serious and studious thinks that the way they engage with fitness is fine, and wants to promote a particular empowering aspect of fitness they have experienced, but wants to claim that power separate from the the greater fitness world that is probably a bit too crazed about wellness. Hence the title of the article, "When Wellness is a Dirty Word." In this way the author never totally confronts the aforementioned criticisms.

I'm O.K. with the author wanting to wrest wellness from the gym-industrial complex and claim it in a serious (in its origins) positive sociological sense. But I think there ought to be an impetus on those who write about fitness to speak more explicitly about the negative aspects of the fitness industry. Think: an advertisement that blasts "THE NUMBER 1 REASON PEOPLE DON'T WORK OUT IS TIME," promoting a \$2,000 exercise machine, shown being used by an ultra-fit male and female, who absolutely, positively, undoubtedly did not gain their physique from just using that machine, which promises amazing results from just 14 minutes a day! Think: all the supplements that are sold to people, all the money exchanged, all the marginal benefits cloaked in maximal language. Think: all the guilt-trips and short-cuts present in these advertisements that result in gym memberships that go unused and broken promises that people make to themselves.

So while I support the positive language used in "When Wellness is a Dirty Word," I think that we here in the United States need a healthier relationship with fitness. That requires calling out what is wrong about the fitness industry as much as offering better options. Much of that fight won't even occur in a gym: our weight is primarily about diet rather than physical activity, despite what fitness advertisements would have you believe.

What this means is that fitness is primarily about lifestyle than any individual component like an exercise routine, supplement, or machine, and so that is what will need to change.


Without further ado, here are some simple rules for fitness:

(1) Aim to be active three days a week, more if it fits your lifestyle. I count all forms of physical activity: running, weightlifting, hiking, yoga, basketball, tennis--even bowling. The list goes on. (I am fortunate enough to live within walking distance, ~20 min, to work.) Twice a week is decent. Once a week is probably not frequent enough to be effective. Find something that you enjoy doing so that you'll want to keep doing it.

(2a) Try not to eat processed foods. Here is a "simple guide".

(2b) I think it is very important that diets, as well as fitness regimens (what exercise you actually do), are fairly frictionless to adopt, frictionless in the sense that you're not putting so much effort into what you eat and how you exercise that it gets in the way of your personal life. The goal is to develop newer habits and not burn yourself out.

(2c) Zealous recommendation by way of personal anecdote: I have never been a breakfast eater. I can't recall how many times I have heard that it is the most important meal of the day. I always respectfully disagree, and try and change the subject or brush off the comment rather than proselytize. I only recently learned that the line originates from a 1944 marketing campaign for Grape Nuts. The science on the benefits of breakfast is tenuous. (Here's more on the weak explanatory power of observational studies.)

So I've been, incidentally, practicing intermittent fasting, which I first learned about in 2011, even though I have for most of my life not eaten breakfast. I find it easy to follow: I'm not hungry in the morning. Once I'm hungry I will eat until I am full. I'll feel satisfied until dinner, at which point I will again eat a satisfying amount of food. I won't eat again until lunch the next day. I don't snack, since I'm not hungry throughout the day, and I do not struggle with trying not to overeat since I eat two large, satisfying meals a day. I recommend trying it for a few weeks and seeing if it works for you. If it doesn't, all's well. But I'll just end this anecdotal section with an anecdote:

“Once you get used to it, it’s not a big deal,” said Dr. Mattson, chief of the institute’s laboratory of neurosciences. “I’m not hungry at all in the morning, and this is other people’s experience as well. It’s just a matter of getting adapted to it.”

(3) Get adequate sleep. I like to aim for no fewer than 8 hours of bedtime, so if my alarm is set for 6:00 AM, I want to be in bed by 10:00 PM.

(4) Don't buy fitness supplements beyond protein powder if it helps you fit your dietary needs. The benefit supplements provide are minimal. Save your money.

(5) Be patient. Results take time. Be kinder to yourself and embrace a positive state of mind.

Starting to exercise was one of the best decisions I ever made. Good luck!