Physical Fitness

Consider this page to be perpetually incomplete. Perhaps there is just an outline here waiting to be fleshed out. There’s always more to add, but it was lasted updated on: [8/9/2020]

Running:

  • I ran track and cross country in middle and high school.
  • I was frequently in pain because of my flat feet. Sometimes I could hardly climb stairs because my legs hurt so much.
  • I didn’t gain the ability to run pain-free until I bought myself some nicer running shoes in college and generally got better at training.
  • I became a runner because I wanted to be one, come hell or high water. I have stayed a runner because it thrills me.

Strength training:

  • I have historically been fit but thin (some would say not properly fit, in that case). Before every run I’d do some push-ups and other exercises, but nothing else.
  • When I was running on a country road outside of Dayton, Ohio, in the summer of 2012, a truck swerved and its mirror hit my left elbow. The mirror shattered; it flew inside the truck and severely injured the driver. I was knocked down, but I jumped right back up. When the ambulance arrived and the EMTs looked at me and the guy driving, they asked me why I was so careless. I indignantly explained that I was the one who was hit (it was never clear why the truck driver swerved), and I showed them my bloody-but-intact elbow.
  • Scans of the elbow revealed that, somehow, nothing was broken. But over time it was clear that something wasn’t right. I experienced stabbing pains, and lifting weights became almost impossible. The contours of the left elbow don’t completely match the right, and I suspected some kind of muscle atrophy or tendon displacement or something. Various doctors, personal trainers, and other medical professionals all said roughly the same thing: nothing is visibly wrong, so I should just keep trying new things out. None of them succeeded in helping me figure out a proper way forward.
  • I wanted to get stronger, but it was hard to proceed with the pain. I was very scared of permanently damaging myself.
  • I tried many different approaches to strength work, iterating slowly and noting my pain levels. Over the years I checked in with medical professionals, but they said “everything looks fine.” I could still run, so I was still happy, but I wanted strong arms and a strong upper body too.
  • Finally one doctor agreed with my own thoughts: one of the muscles serving my elbow joint was damaged. He, unlike every other medical professional, also agreed that the topography of my elbow was just a little off, likely as a my body reconfigured itself in the healing process. But I, and it, would be OK.
  • I began to make progress about three years ago. The general course of action was “Go slow. No. Slower. Don’t try to progress that fast. This will take years. Remember running?” I did a small amount of sets broken up throughout the day, a few times a week. There was pain. But as long as it didn’t cross a certain threshold I kept going. I would add one push-up every few weeks. I took months off sometimes when I got nervous about elbow pain. I just wanted to build endurance, and allow whatever was causing the pain—a nerve, a muscle that couldn’t pull its weight, or something—to potentially adjust. I kept track of my elbow angles when I tried different exercises.
  • Then, in December of 2019, I finally hit the point where I thought: “I think I can go faster now. There’s rarely pain, and when it’s present it doesn’t persist or devolve into a lasting ache. There doesn’t seem to be a risk of damaging myself given everything I know.”
  • So I started to go a little harder.
  • April and May 2020 were my launchpad. June was a grind. By July my arms, chest, and back were craving further improvement, just like my legs did. I’m at a very exciting place now.

Philosophy of Physical Fitness

(I’ll get this organized better at some point, but here are the general thoughts.)

The mind and the body are one. The mind is the body—it emerges from the brain. And the body is the mind—it supplies and houses it. Both need to be taken care of and cultivated. This means proper training, a good diet, and good sleep (I’ve historically had a hard time with that last one, but it’s getting better).

Our culture generally regards physical health in terms of “prevent and treat disease.” I regard health as “pursue your body’s potential and see what pleasure you can find in the deployment of its vigor.”

I’ve long been pleased with my body—it didn’t look exactly like I wanted it to look until recently (I would have preferred more muscles), but I am quite proud of how it runs, and how it allows me to keep moving without growing tired. While fully arrogating to myself all possible pride, I also thought that there were other people who looked nicer than I did.

In my mind, my body got mostly full marks for function, but not full marks for aesthetics. I didn’t feel bad about this—I think you can feel deep satisfaction by training your body to its available potential, even if that doesn’t allow you to reach a certain aesthetic height. We all have different natural starting points, and different limits.

I don’t think that we should automatically accept the body we’re in. By default it stays weak unless we do something about it. We do need to change ourselves through training, both for better baseline health and for the life-affirming self-esteem that comes from seeing what your physical form is capable of. We’ll all look different when we apply training to our bodies, and we’ll all pick different kinds of training, but the point is that we train.

This isn’t “body negativity.” You are a bag of meat, and that is the meat you have to work with. Work it to the best of your ability, and be proud. Sometimes we have constraints that prevent us from using our body as we’d like. Sometimes we have to figure out the best way to train our body specifically, and that might not be easy. Not everyone wants to be an athlete. And, at the end of the day, a person’s character does not turn on their level of physical fitness, or how they look. Every individual has a whole context to them.

However: there is a pernicious bit of thought running around our culture that I don’t like. It encourages lack of effort in physical improvement by encouraging people to accept their bodies without any training applied to them. People should apply training to them. Results will vary, but the idea of training should not. Imagine, for a moment, that the same thing was happening to mental training. If you think that you should always be working to improve your mind and your mental faculties, then it would be strange to neglect the thing that houses, feeds, and is the mind itself. If you think it is virtuous to develop the mind, and think that rewards should follow from that, why not the same for the body?

Now that I am successfully pursuing strength training, I’m pleased to see my new strength manifest in daily life. And each new muscular contour makes me smile, especially when I think about the long road that I took to this point.

Looks do matter, but to what extent relies upon the context of the person they’re attached to.

Why? Because the body and the mind both require cultivation.

Cultivating the body, but neglecting the mind, makes physical beauty hollow.

Cultivating the mind, but neglecting the body, deprives the mind of joy and acuity, and removes it faster from this life.