The psychological value of fitness
For most of my adult life, I didn’t value the gym. I’d go a few times here and there, over the years, but about six months ago, I started going regularly (3-7 days a week), and it’s been really terrific for my general well-being.
Have I seen results? Of course. Nothing crazy, but there’s been a visibly noticeable change for the better. More importantly, though, that wasn’t really the point. Vanity’s not exactly a virtue. No, the reason I started going was to work on building habits in general (something I’m historically awful at, and unfortunately also the foundation of nearly all personal growth).
The rules were simple: JUST WALK IN THE DOOR. That was it. Get through the door, do something, and then mark it on the calendar. Obviously, this ran contrary to conventional online fitness wisdom, which preaches rigorous regiments, but I can safely say now that this little theory worked. Once I got in the door, I’d push myself, further and further, naturally increasing intensity over time, researching tips and techniques as I needed them, and gradually developing my own loose system for maximizing results. It’s what new age workout types call “your personal fitness journey,” but most importantly, I’d have never done it if I were constantly psyching myself out of it like in the old days, waiting until “the day when I feel like it” to get in there. Instead, again, the whole focus was just on doing something. It just happens to be that once you’re there, you’ll probably want to give it your all. And in the rare event you don’t, don’t sweat it, because you technically still did what you came to do - you got in the door.
But that’s just how I finally got myself to do it. Now for the good parts: the results.
I feel better. Just generally, throughout my day, I’m in a better mood. My emotions are more evened out. My back doesn’t ache (some of my focus has been on general rehabilitative stuff like that). I have more energy. I sleep better. And all of this ripples into everything I do, though admittedly, in the moment, it’s virtually imperceptible, but over time, the signs add up. Furthermore, just as regular practice naturally got me interested in research and maximizing my returns, it also got me focused on my diet. A ton of these psychological benefits come from just eating healthier. I consume a somewhat unreasonable quantity of protein, but I’m not “dirty-bulking” on ice cream and tuna cans. I eat well (mostly) and rarely even crave fried foods, soft drinks, desserts, etc.. Hell, it even saves money. Overall, the purely physical/neurological results have been terrific, which brings us to the other side of the psychological coin.
Going to the gym regularly hasn’t instilled a sort of abstract sense of discipline in me so much as it’s become this foundational habit upon which I’ve been able to structure other good habits. It’s kind of perfect in that way. Because the bar is technically so low, there’s no apprehension about “plunging” into action, and yet once I leave, I’m now in a completely active/improvement mindset. It works as either a starter to my day or a reset. If I get stuck in some self-indulgent recreation loop (which happens far more rarely than it did for years), then I can simply stroll my happy ass down to the local Iron Temple and sweat that laziness through my pores. By the time I come out, I’m reset, and again, it doesn’t take a lot of time. In fact, I don’t think it should. I find that my shorter workouts are usually the best. I stay focused. My minds not wandering because it can’t. I have to focus on the set. It’s a form of meditation. And at the same time, it’s breaking down my internal resistances. After that, whatever project I want to work on, I suddenly find much easier to engage with. Those nagging urges to avoid the things I rationally understand that I should do are exhausted (at least until the next day).
Anyways, I hope this has been informative. I could ramble on about this for a long time (and that’s without even going into my workout specifics). But the bottom line is that developing a gym habit doesn’t have to be about comparing yourself to other people or wanting people to like the way you look. It has deep psychological benefits that go far beyond anything else I’ve found in my stoic practice. It’s not a cure-all, but I’ve found that it’s an absolutely invaluable tool. Also, I might get to live longer, so that’s cool too. Memento mori.
Nice. Good job. I was just reading an article about the psychological benefits of fitness, and as great as the physical and emotional ones are, it may be your mind that is settled the most. In fact I slightly injured my foot and have cut down my activity and it’s amazing how I feel slightly depressed. On the stoic front, the discipline is admirable and to be encouraged.
and to your point #2, it’s amazing how you can deal with bad habits by the displacement with good ones. I stopped drinking alcohol for about 10-11 months a while back and mostly I would do like you, go to the gym. And it was something to do after work. And, like booze, my stress went down but I didn’t have to deal with feeling shite in the morning, I felt good.
Also, half the battle is starting your physical activity, especially when you’re not feeling like it. This is the discipline aspect and usually after an hour of chatting or stretching or farting around, I’d get warmed up and actually exercise.
Great post and 100% agree. Made a similar change myself last year to lose weight. Takes some time to start dropping fat, but the biggest thing for me was the immediate benefits of being in a better mood, better sleep, and easier to do complex mental work. Felt it made learning easier too. Paired with good nutrition it can solve a lot of problems for people and can help greatly with depression for most people.
Forming positive habits is a big one too. You start to structure your day and other activities and endeavors to better yourself just fall into place. The link between body, mind, mood, etc is real. Stoicism is about living virtuously and good health and fitness is pretty much a requirement for that. It just feeds into all the other virtues so well.
I have been in some deep lows with depression in my life, and cleaning up my diet with exercise daily has pulled me out. I know there are other aspects to depression, and that doesn't work for some people, but to anyone out there struggling and wants options to try it. Sounds cliche but we are literally what we eat, and the actions we choose to do every day.
Perhaps the most fundamental concept underlying Stoic philosophy is the adoption and development of positive habits (towards a multitude of ends, but predominantly tranquility, discipline, and living in accordance with nature). The most popular Roman stoics like Aurelius and Seneca were obsessed with developing healthy daily habits that maximized personal growth. Likewise, follow any modern stoic thinker, and you’ll find the same (but tailored for our modern world, and often professing the importance of physical fitness). After all, it’s perhaps the most basic way that we can live through the modern dichotomy of control: factors regarding our health (both mental and physical) will always be subject to fate, but there are practical things that we can do to better ourselves each and every day.
I agree, we need those endorphins.
If you keep a dog locked up in a house, it gets depressed too. When compared to other mammals, we’re not particularly strong or quick, but humans are long-distance runners that can outrun a horse to exhaustion. It’s how our ancestors hunted, tracking over long distances. We’re clearly meant to get our blood flowing more than we are. In nature, our species is far more active.