If we are overweight, we may be embarrassed to be seen in a state of undress.
If we are short in stature, we may be belligerent and combative.
If we are prematurely bald, this may make us socially shy.
If we are targets of prejudice based on our race, we may be defensive, angry or indignant in our dealings with the world.
Our gender may open up opportunities to us or, conversely, close them down.
If we are chronically ill, it may make us despondent, pessimistic and risk-averse.
Undoubtedly, our bodies frame our disposition to the world.
Some of these physical challenges we just have to live with. For others we can create physical or psychological compensations (sometimes over-compensations) or coping mechanisms that may or may not be helpful. However, when it comes to physical power and the size and shape of our bodies, we can all do something to transcend our limitations.
In the last post we talked about Nietzsche’s physicalism. If we are to take his idea at face value - that the mind is secondary to the body - being physically ‘strong’ may be the first and most fundamental step towards cultivating mental, even spiritual, power. Strengthening the body is a crucial means of instilling discipline, toughness and an appetite for adversity and challenge – all Nietzschean virtues.
With respect to our natural functions, though we now live in ‘civilized’ societies, it is surely important that one can run, climb, swim and even fight when necessary. These are primal life skills for which our bodies have evolved. The same can be said of sex. Our bodies developed to enable us to pursue game for food, to scramble into the safety of a tree to evade predators, to be able to cross rivers and repel hostile invaders. They also evolved for mating and procreating.
’Now, everything essential in the development of mankind took place in primeval times, long before the 4,000 years we more or less know about’. Human, All To Human
Bodies that perform all these primal functions most capably are those that tend to be most healthy. It is surely no surprise to us then, when one considers the inescapable human drive to procreate, that the most attractive among us are frequently those best built to fulfill these functions. Such types are easy to recognise. Athletic. Muscular. Sporty. Fit. Strong.
That is not to say that some of us don’t find other body types attractive, and even non-physical characteristics like wit, intelligence, social status, wealth and confidence can and do arouse. However, when it comes to ‘looks’, the majority would choose a strong-looking partner. Even a millionaire can only have his or her charms enhanced by a well-toned body.
There is a weight of scientific evidence that tells us we are attracted to strength (fitness) because it signals reproductive health. Millions of years of evolution have fine-tuned this preference in a potential sexual partner. Aside from the increased certainty of being able to provide the necessities of life that strength afforded in our hunter-gatherer history, we want those strong genes themselves, because we want our children to be strong - to thrive.
It follows that strong people have an edge then. Not only does the most robust scientific evidence tell us that they are healthier, with greater protection from a whole host of diseases (including mental health issues) but they have greater social clout too. Not to mention the boost to self-confidence that being fit and in control of one’s body grants one. Why would anybody not want this? The problem is, as we all know, it is very hard for us modern folk, with our cosseted lives, to achieve optimal physical fitness and to maintain it.
The desire to give the right signal with regard to our own reproductive health can be quite a motivator, getting us out the door to jog or go to the gym, but because exercise is hard we look for shortcuts. Liposuction, diet pills, tummy tucks, implants, ‘spanks’ – these all promise the benefits without the efforts. Such smoke and mirrors don’t fool people very effectively, I suggest, and the ambivalent reactions that such tactics receive is a testimony to the unsettling sense that a fraud is being perpetrated - those genes remain totally unaltered by such cosmetic dissembling.
So, there is no alternative, you must do the work. As Nietzsche states, the body is ‘that which has to be fashioned, bruised, forged, stretched, roasted, annealed, refined’. It must necessarily ‘SUFFER, and IS MEANT to suffer?’ He goes further, you must love the suffering. The good news is that it is possible to love it. Look at all those gym addicts and triathlon obsessives. And really, the fact that there is no genuine shortcut only makes the prize more worth having. The greater the trial, the greater the triumph!
Back in December, I wrote about my own continuing attempts to get in shape. That was ten weeks ago. See my statistics in the table below.
In summary, my goals were:
Drop my weight by 7kg – I’ve managed to lose 4kg
Increase my muscle composition by 6% – I’ve managed 3.5%
Drop my fat by 7% – I’ve managed 3.5%
Drop my BMI by 3.5 points – I’ve managed 1 point
And drink a hell of a lot more water – making progress.
All in ten weeks. I’m more or less half way to my goals (which were arbitrary, you may recall. See the post). At this point, I realise I didn’t set a date for achievement of those goals, but progress is good so I’m happy to just try to get there at my current pace.
I have made progress by making the following lifestyle changes.
I rarely eat breakfast – maybe a little packet of plain oatcakes mid-morning. Breakfast just makes me hungrier during the course of the day, and it saps my energy – all that blood rushing to the stomach. I don’t buy this ‘breakfast like a king’ nonsense.
I have a few sticks of celery with lots of peanut butter for lunch 4-5 days per week. A sandwich, occasionally, otherwise.
I have a big smoothie with fruit, veg and seeds, which I drink during the course of the day on most days.
I eat what I want in the evening but try not to go overboard.
You can see that this is not a very scientific approach. There is no measuring or counting of calories, just the cultivation of a few new habits and preferences. I don’t even tend to stick to this routine religiously. What you do have to accustom yourself to is being just a bit hungry a lot of the time. There is a certain weird pleasure to be had in this. As Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil:
‘The noble human being honours himself as one who is powerful, also as one who has power over himself… who delights in being severe and hard with himself and respects all severity and hardness’
And of course, food tastes so, so much better when you do eat.
I run to and from work 3 times per week – 3.25 miles each way = 19.5 miles per week.
I do indoor climbing for up to 90 minutes 3-4 times per week.
I do the following resistance exercise once or twice per day on most days – 15 press-ups, 7 pull-ups, 75 sit-ups, 35 curls with 5kg dumbbells, 20 overhead press with 5kg dumbbells, and 4 minutes of hangs on the fingerboard (this last one is for strengthening the grip for climbing).
Everyone knows it feels good to lose excess weight. Physical fitness is one of those areas where success is self-reinforcing – you see progress and it spurs you on to work harder, a virtuous circle in which you start to love the suffering because you can see its fruits.
Conversely, becoming less fit can nudge you into a spiral of self-sabotage. We notice we are putting on weight, this is depressing and so to cheer ourselves up we eat, making the situation worse. Therefore, it’s important to try and build momentum in a positive direction early to motivate yourself.
We have talked already about the benefits of being strong with regard to health, social interactions and self-confidence but another benefit I have observed with my own improved fitness is a sense of getting back in touch with my body, a more intimate relationship with my own physicality is being restored.
No question, losing control of one’s weight actually alienates you from your own body. We don’t like to look at ourselves when we feel fat. We tend to hide ourselves, wearing baggier clothing, folding our arms over our bellies. Whereas when weight is lost and muscles grow, there’s a physical-mental connection that begins to be strengthened. The sex drive increases. Sex itself becomes more satisfying, more luxuriant somehow. Might it be the case that in order to have the most fulfilling sex-life, one needs to find one’s self attractive? Or at least, not to feel repulsed by one’s own body?
Whatever the case, it is certainly true that getting in good shape helps re-establish that important mind-body unity which, for Nietzsche, is an absolute prerequisite to The Great Health.
‘There is more intelligence in your body than in your best wisdom.’
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