The Thinking 

Age of Fitness, Age of Exhaustion

July 3, 2012


IAN writes:

Thank you for your wonderful site. I discovered it about six months ago and have been reading faithfully since. This is my first time writing you.

I was wondering if you had any old posts on the modern obsession over exercise, especially among women. A conservative friend of mine recently accused me of being a feminist when I wrote to him in an e-mail that the modern obsession of women over exercise evinced an inappropriate focus on looks. Specifically, I wrote the following:

[G]irls should be concerned about their weight if they are overweight. But there is a drive for women to look ‘hot,’ which is not healthy from both a physical and spiritual point of view. It encourages disorders like anorexia, incites lust in men, encourages men to only be concerned with how a woman looks, and encourages an inordinate focus on always being at the gym where you see all these silly-looking women prancing about. We’ve all met lots of women who think it’s the end of the world if they miss a day of exercise and women who talk frequently about needing to lose weight when they look perfectly healthy and normal. Ridiculous.

A moderate concern for being healthy and feminine-looking is appropriate. Constantly stressing over being thin enough and sexy is not.

The whole debate started when my friend wrote that women should be somewhat self-conscious about their bodies, and I replied that women were already too self-conscious about their looks in our society today. To me, the obsession over exercise seems to point to a different, disordered end than simple femininity and grace.

I’d be very interested in your thoughts. I know you have written a bit on women and competitive sports, but I could not find anything on women and exercise in general.

For the record, I think many men prioritize exercise too much as well.

Laura writes:

Thank you for writing. I have only discussed the issue in passing.

I don’t think vanity is the sole reason why both men and women fanatically pursue fitness and are unable to approach it with moderation. An even more important factor is the worship of work and the profound sense of identification with work. We live in a world of totalistic, all-consuming work punctuated by empty distraction from totalistic, all-consuming work. Productivity, material attainment and technical functioning are the highest goods. Femininity and domesticity were once obstacles to lives centered on work. But these things now seem inexplicable, useless luxuries, in the same way the Sabbath, a day when people did not go shopping or do chores, seems a useless luxury.

As Josef Pieper wrote in Leisure: The Basis of Culture:

[T]he world of work is becoming our entire world; it threatens to engulf us completely, and the demands of the world of work become greater and greater, till at last they make a “total”claim upon the whole of human nature.

Solitude, contemplation and passivity seem pointless. It’s lazy to be unfit. I imagine people from other periods suddenly being dropped in the middle of an American city and seeing so many people – both men and women – running and lifting weights. It might strike them that they were running away. In many cases, that’s what it is: a running away.

I once asked a physical therapist whether housework counted as exercise. She said, “Oh, no. No!” She was horrified at the idea. Of course, physical therapists, gym owners and various others make money off the exercise craze and people are amazingly gullible about some of their claims and pretensions. The physical therapist said housework doesn’t involve the aerobic intensity to qualify as exercise. There is a mystical belief in aerobic intensity as the key to longevity and contentment. Newspapers have often featured articles about how people who don’t exercise enough are depressed. Energy, for a Vitalist people, is a god. And, to be passive in any way is a form of death.

No one would deny that exercise is necessary and that it is often pleasurable. But leisure and the inner life are essential too. Unfortunately, no one makes much money off our decision to do nothing. Aristotle said a man can achieve leisure to the extent that “a divine principle dwells within him.”

Pieper again:

Because Wholeness is what man strives for, the power to achieve leisure is one of the fundamental powers of the human soul.

True leisure springs from an awareness of our insufficiency. To be healthy is not necessarily to be well.

                                   — Comments —

Kimberly writes:

I am one of those women in the bad habit of complaining that I need to lose weight when I am actually just fine. I get a little “softer” now and then but my husband would not even notice if I didn’t complain about it. It certainly came from a lustful past and a potent dose of insecurity associated with the pain of it all, which inevitably led to vanity. It’s a vicious cycle.

I personally think it’s crazy that people actually work-out just to be fit. There is nothing I hate more than intense exercise when there is no distraction. I like playing sports and doing fun exercise; things that distract me from the work-out and make it more like a leisurely activity. I think that is the sort of exercise God intended, a healthy approach that does not involve vanity so much as a need for recreation. People seem to waste their recreational energy on shopping these days. I guess they have to do something.

Laura writes:

Feminism has made even a reasonable amount of exercise impossible for many women who work at desks or other sedentary jobs and return home to a second shift. I am referring to the women who cannot afford nannies or people to clean their homes or meals in restaurants. Many men suffer the same problem  — no time to even take a walk — because they have to pitch in more at home.

Karen I. writes:

I have reached the age where women have to choose between their backsides and their faces to some extent. My friends in their early 40s and beyond who are bone thin have a gaunt, wrinkled and tired look. They were “hot” and beautiful a decade ago, but now they obsess over when to start Botox or have fat injected into their faces while continuing to exercise and diet compulsively. I am not an exercise fanatic, but I do have a healthy BMI well within the normal range. People are stunned when they learn my age. A hairdresser I saw today insisted I look at least a decade younger than I am. My mother, who is slightly overweight, has a very young looking face as well. Over the age of about 40, a little bit of weight helps a woman’s face look fuller, prettier and less wrinkled.

Another thing women do that often goes with over-exercising is tanning, outdoors and at tanning booths in gyms. Many “gym rats” tan four or more times a week, resulting in an unnatural look that quickly leads to premature aging and even skin cancer. If a woman has spent her adult life starving herself, tanning and over-exercising, the result can be hideous in middle age and beyond.

Laura writes:

My husband went to the funeral last week of a woman who died of anorexia at the age of 64.

Mary writes:

It occurred to me recently that we are starting to resemble a modern-day, all-female Sparta. Some women in my town have reached an almost frightening level of fitness; they look more like warriors, with sinewy arms and hard faces. I see women every day, including some in my own family, who are so fit they are losing their bustlines, and their waists for some reason seem too straight (a result of no hips/bust?). They walk in a more masculine way. And there’s not as much smiling. I see women running along the main avenue of our town, the fleetest looking more like teenage boys but with breasts heaving (if they have any left). Ouch. Ancient Greece redux.

“There is a mystical belief in aerobic intensity as the key to longevity and contentment.”

Indeed. We are starved for ritual. This can be seen in the positively religious approach of many to pursuing physical fitness. I see many people of all shapes and sizes and fitness levels, male and female, chugging along the busiest road in town, probably because it’s relatively straight and flat, and I have to suppress a snicker – it seems comical to me. No one can convince me that pounding my knees and ankles on hot asphalt with cars zooming by is necessary to keeping fit, Ipod or no Ipod. Not buying it. I have no problem with people wanting to “stay in shape,” but using this method has moved entirely beyond that simple desire and has actually become an act of mortification and self-denial, but without the awesome payoff.

Laura writes:

It becomes an act of mortification not just because of the punishing quality of the exercise, but also because of the enormous time involved. What is the mortification for? Fitness is considered a state of sanctification. It’s not just that you will look good, but you will become virtuous too.

MarkyMark writes:

I have a simple theory about why women are obsessed with looks, sex appeal, and exercise these days. For me, it’s simple: they have nothing else to offer a man besides sex appeal and looks. Does the modern woman know how to cook these days? No. Does she even know how to boil water? No. Does she know how to clean and keep house? No. Is she even a kind, decent, warm, and supportive companion? Hell no! So what, pray tell me, does a woman have to offer a man besides looks and sex appeal? From where I sit, not a whole lot. Ergo, women freak out if they gain two ounces of weight….

Laura writes:

There is truth to that.

Mary writes:

What is the mortification for? Fitness is considered a state of sanctification.

I see the physical fitness obsession as having corollaries to religious practice: getting dressed in the proper attire; driving to church (the gym); praying a little before Mass (“warming up”); spending an hour at Mass sharing a time of intense focus with like-minded people (“working out”); spending a few moments after Mass in prayer and reflection (“cooling down”); and post-Mass socializing (chatting after working out). Upon leaving church or the gym there is a feeling of release and accomplishment, except that one is spirituality enhanced by sensual experience and one is purely sensual. Pursuit of physical fitness does satisfy and can too often not only fulfill but replace the longing for ritual in our lives.

I have a need, as I think most people do, to be a part of greater society and experience the prevailing culture; it’s a natural and important impulse and part of what binds human society (the major binding element being natural marriage and family). In a different age that desire would lead my family to wholesome and deeply satisfying common experience with others often involving mutual preparation, part of which would appeal to the senses – food and drink, music, dancing, etc, – but more importantly, would nourish the soul as the ultimate goal was often a religious one, or at least involved expressing true gratitude to God. In other words, the sensual aspects of the traditions were utilized almost solely to shore up the true purpose of the socializing: enhancing the spiritual lives of ourselves and that of the other participants.

In a degraded culture such as today’s, we are drawn out of our air-conditioned, media-oriented homes only by what’s left of traditions and rituals when drained of all spiritual value: purely sensual interaction which only serves to perpetuate more of the same. We are left with satisfying our senses alone, with no deeply satisfying pay-off. Hence the feeling of emptiness and the constant replenishing of sensual experience needed by the average American. It takes tremendous energy to rebuild wholesome culture but it’s very much worth it, even if it’s sometimes exhausting. Today we will venture out to celebrate the 4th of July. We will try to avoid rock and roll and bikinis and junk food. It may prove difficult.

Pat writes:

There is a great passage from the book Who Needs Classical Music by Julius Johnson that relates to the remarks made.

“The fate of music is symptomatic of a social situation far wider than music alone. That our culture is dominated by surfaces, and what one might call a dominant aesthetics of the surface, is evident everywhere. The importance of devoting time, money, and energy to appearances is proclaimed from every billboard and magazine. Consider how often, by comparison, we are accosted about the states of our minds. Viewed from a global perspective, society’s collective concern for fitness, diet, exercise regimes, beauty products, and cosmetic surgery is rather peculiar. This concern is not primarily about the basic health of our bodies (we certainly have enough to eat); it is about ‘quality of life,’ realizing our potential, feeling as good as we can, and preserving ourselves for as long as we can. But where, one might ask, are the contemporary gymnasia of the mind? Where does one discuss the nutritional value of what we feed our minds? What does it mean that a society cares so little for things of the mind, that art galleries, concert halls, and libraries become increasingly empty while half the population pursues aerobics with a mixture of passion and guilt that was formerly the preserve of the Church? This obsession with physicality and appearance extends beyond our bodies and is widely reflected in a culture obsessed by packaging, image and design. The surface is everything. We live in a visual culture that attaches primary significance to the exchange of signs — of power, attraction, status, wealth, desire — that are overwhelmingly visual. Even in music, visuals are everything: hence the ubiquity not only of the music video but the marketing of the star. And when it comes to the music itself, the surface sheen is everything; the music is literally one-dimensional — it has one sound, one timbre, one kind of material. It rejects polyphony and discursive forms. It is as if the art of costume design were replaced by admiring pieces of cloth, a change of focus that is antithetical to art music, which has always been more concerned with what is done with the material and how it is shaped into meaningful temporal form.” (pp. 57-8)

Mrs. H. writes:

I  agree with many of the observations your readers have suggested for why our culture is negatively obsessed with “working out,” especially compared to previous generations.

However, there are other cultural reasons beyond our control, such as:

1) fewer physically-intensive jobs for the men

2) more convenience appliances for the wife at home (anyone out there ever try washing clothes by hand?)

3) automobiles (when not walking, even saddling and riding a horse takes a lot more muscle)

4) far fewer families living on farms, where manual labor is required, even today.

So, in the past, exercise was a means to an end, and no one thought about it much, except for maybe some morning aerobics. Now it’s just an end in itself, and I do believe people become addicted to it. Instead of using your body to serve those around you and your family (hoeing a garden, building a fence, even milking a cow), we simply exercise for good health–physical and mental. (And, of course, vanity.)

Our modern type of exercise–focusing on muscle groups–is rather artificial, and may not be good for us, or make us strong in the true sense. George Hebert, who influenced French military training in the 20th century, recognized that the modern method of exercising was “unable to develop the human body harmoniously and especially unable to prepare his students with the practical and moral demands of life.” The idea is routine and systematic exercise may make large muscles, but doesn’t prepare for the unexpected or unusual. Your body gets used to a sort of “muscle memory” of your routine, and you can’t do much beyond it. I don’t know if his his Natural Method is perfect, but it recognizes the problem with exercising for its own sake, not for the sake of those around you, especially in emergencies.

Laura writes:

Good points. We have been criticizing obsessiveness, but that’s not to deny that exercise is good and necessary to health.

Life is much more sedentary than in the past, especially with cars and the lack of walkable communities. Especially in the suburbs, people have to seek out exercise.

Mary writes:

In response to MarkyMark:

Does the modern man know how to fix anything these days? No. Does he even know how to change a tire? No. Does he know how to clean the gutters and paint a house? No. Is he even a kind, decent, warm, and supportive companion? Hell no!…

There are a lot of things to take issue with in regards to the modern woman, and I often do, but clearly the problem of not knowing how to work hard and take care of one’s house and family is not limited to women. And the obsession with fitness and looks is also not exclusive to women. I see loads of overly groomed, buff guys with trendy clothes running around my part of the world.

Mrs. H’s comments rightly draw focus to the fact that both men and women have much less opportunity for physical exertion in work and much more time to obsess over their looks. It’s no coincidence that feminism followed the age of the New Frontier when modern conveniences in the form of food and appliances began to be worshipped. So also began our nations slide into the sedentary life, allowing feminism, which might otherwise have foundered, to flourish instead, taking advantage as it does of idle hands and minds. But it’s also no coincidence that Playboy also came of age at this time and took advantage of the same idleness hands and minds, but instead they belonged to the men. The work ethic and intellect and morals of both men and women have been under attack for a long time.

Laura writes:

Yes, feminism has encouraged a sedentary life.

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