Stoic Reflections From The Gym (part 1) by Greg Sadler

In recent years, we have had a number of well-written and informative pieces discussing Stoicism and physical exercise or sport here in Stoicism Today.  These include pieces like:

One might wonder then:  Why another piece on the topic.  Hasn’t everything relevant already been said about the application of Stoic philosophy to matters athletic, sporty, or exercise-related in those excellent pieces here, as well as in myriad other pieces (ranging much more widely in quality) elsewhere? After all, once Stoicism became a hot topic – guaranteed to garner eyeballs on the internet – posts applying Stoicism to these matters of the body have practically exploded in number, popularity, and readership. Why write more of that sort of stuff, given how much of it is out there already?

Then again, perhaps a different sort of post would be better.  There’s always room for pieces narrating and sharing one’s own story, by way of inspiration and personal example.  After all, Stoicism is a philosophy of practice and that means that it applies to particular individuals, who live out and experiment with Stoicism’s general teachings.  Or maybe a more exegetical post tallying up and interpreting the many references to training, working out, and athletic contests could be of interest?

This post will be something a bit different. While it includes some brief discussion about what classic Stoics had to say about exercise, athletics, and the body, and a good bit of personal narrative, the goal is to provide something more broadly useful.  The audience I have in mind is less a high-performance athlete engaging and perhaps even competing in physical skills or sports.  It’s not even the person who already has exercise as a central component of his or her lifestyle.  It’s directed less towards readers in their teens and twenties – those years many of us look back on as ages of better bodily health which we may have taken for granted – and more aimed at an audience either approaching, solidly within, or past middle age.  That’s not to say that it might not be useful or of interest for the types of readers I’ve mentioned.

The reflections that follow stem from my own experiences, insights, and reflections having to do with exercise.  These are filtered  through Stoic philosophy and practices, which I have relied upon over roughly the last year-and-a half of workouts at the gym we belong to (the Wisconsin Athletic Club, with a number of locations here in the Milwaukee area).  My wife and I struggled for years to reincorporate consistent exercise into our busy lives.  When dealing with heavy workloads, health challenges, and a slew of family matters, it becomes easy to sketch out plans for getting back into shape. It is equally easy to sign up for a gym membership, and perhaps even to go a few times.  To stick with exercise, week after week, that’s considerably tougher.  For me, reincorporating exercise in middle age turned out to be much more difficult and demanding than it was in my youth.

My workouts at the gym are pretty straightforward and unambitious.  Some days, I make a circuit of 14-16 exercises using weights machines, generally doing three sets of 12-15 repetitions on each.  That takes me anywhere from 1 hour, if I’m really moving, to 90 minutes.  Other days, I put in an hour of cardiovascular exercise – 20 minutes on an elliptical, 20 minutes on a rowing machine, 10 minutes on a side-stepper, and 10 minutes on an inclined treadmill.  Those workouts, supplemented by daily walking and occasional hikes, are as much as I can fit in, and I find them sufficiently challenging to be entirely uninterested in adding anything along lines of advice well-meaning people frequently suggest.

During those workouts, I find myself with plenty of time to reflect and ruminate. Since I study, teach, and produce content about Stoicism, ideas and issues from that discipline are often in my thought.  Being at the gym also provides me with a lot of occasions to put Stoic philosophy into practice. I find myself having to deal with impressions, judgements, lines of thinking, emotions, desires, aversions, and my own habits. The fact that I have classic Stoic passages, principles, and practices ready at hand when I face these matters is, on the one hand, a sign that I am indeed making progress.  The fact that I still routinely need to use those is, on the other hand, a sign that I have a lot more progress to make.  

The reflections that follow may be useful for others who would like to bring Stoicism to bear on their own challenges in starting and sticking with regular physical exercise.  I suspect that, given the challenges they stem from these reflections may be pertinent to other domains of life as well.  In order to keep this piece to a reasonable length, I’ll discuss two of those sets of reflections today.  In the coming week, I will add a few shorter follow-up pieces about yet other reflections.

Considering the Body As Indifferent

Classical Stoic thinkers employ many analogies likening the training of the mind with that of physical exercise and discipline.  What did they think about training the body itself?  One might think that they are of two minds about this.  For example, you notice Epictetus asserting in Enchiridion 41 that one sign of an poorly developed person is spending much time on matters of the body.  These include eating and drinking, but also engaging in exercise (gumnazesthai). 

Seneca cautions Lucilius along these lines in Letter 15.

It is foolish. . . and unbefitting an educated man to busy oneself with exercising the muscles, broadening the shoulders, and strengthening the torso. . . . .Those who are obsessed with such a regimen incur many discomforts.

He does not suggest ignoring physical exercise, but rather placing it within a proper framework.

There are ways of exercising that are easy and quick, that give the body a workout without taking up too much time. . .  running, and arm movements with various weights, and jumping. . . Choose whatever you like and make it easy by practice.  But whatever you do, return quickly from the body to the mind and exercise that, night and day.

Within classical Stoic philosophy, there is a clear, consistent, and uncompromising viewpoint on the human body.  Those who focus upon it exclusively or even primarily are deeply mistaken, and whatever they may temporarily achieve or attain through the body, they are inevitably passing up any chance at real happiness, because they are closing themselves off to developing what really matters, and what we really do have some measure of control over.  This is our mind, and in particular the nexus at its core that Stoics call by various names (picking out distinctive functions):  the governing faculty, the rational faculty, the faculty of choice or will (prohairesis).  Prioritizing and valuing physical exercise for its own sake, or for the sake of ends it leads to as a means (being strong and tough, attaining a certain look or body type, becoming more physically attractive, competing with others, etc.) is not inherently or absolutely incompatible with developing and exercising one’s mental and moral capacities, but for many people it turns out to be so in their specific cases.

Strictly speaking, the body is what the Stoics classify as an “indifferent,” something that lacks intrinsic moral value, for good or for bad.  This is not to say that as an indifferent it lacks value altogether, but it does not have the same sort of positive or negative value as things that are genuine goods or bads.  In their teachings and advice, Stoics provided numerous examples of things that fit under this umbrella term of the indifferent.  Wealth and poverty, honor and disgrace, positions and powers or being a “nobody” – these are all commonplace examples.

Interestingly, if you look at many of the things that Stoics call “indifferents,” they pertain to the body in one way or another.  Life or death, sickness or health, pleasure or pain, strength or weakness, attractiveness or ugliness – the body is not just one thing that is an indifferent, but rather a nexus of all sorts of indifferents. Quite a few of these are interconnected with each other.  If we look at matters of the body along these Stoic lines, what do we make of hitting the gym then?  Doesn’t whether we go or don’t go – or whether we exercise hard or slack off – also become just a set of choices that bear upon indifferents, so that really, they don’t matter very much (or perhaps at all)?  In the grand scheme of things, does it matter at all if I do all of the repetitions in a set?  Does it matter if I skip one of the weights exercises on any given day, or just row for 15 minutes rather than 20? 

For Stoics, recognizing that things concerning the body are indifferents doesn’t lead them to think that how we approach them, how we deal with them, the decisions me make about them is itself something indifferent.  There is the entire dimension of “use” (khresis), about which Epictetus tells us:

Materials are indifferent, but the use that we make of them is not a matter of indifference.  . . . Are externals to be used carelessly?  Not at all.  This is again to the moral purpose an evil and thus unnatural to it.  They must be used carefully, because their use is not a matter of indifference, and at the same time with steadfastness and peace of mind, because the matter is indifferent

Discourses 2.5

In this discourse, Epictetus likens the conduct of one’s life to playing a game with a ball.  The ball itself is an indifferent, but the way one choses to play is up to one, and does have positive or negative moral significance.  One might look at one’s body in a similar light.  Whether one chooses to exercise or not, one can experience pain, bad health, weakness, obesity, and ultimately death.  In fact, as I often remind my students, you can get and maintain yourself in peak physical shape and get hit by a stray bus as you cross the street, or succumb to some unexpected pandemic.  In many ways the body and its many connected indifferents is really outside the scope of our control.  And yet, we can make prudent use of our bodies by engaging in regular physical exercise. We are responsible to some extent for the shape our bodies are in, and what we choose to do about that.

As a middle aged man, for whom physical exercise never comes as easily or effortlessly as I remember it did in my earlier decades, I have to remind myself that it is up to me what I do with this rather out of condition meat-machine I have been assigned.  In my own case, I also have to keep in mind that the current state of my body is a result of not making the right uses of it in terms of exercise in the past, but that it is possible in the present to choose, to commit, to “use” better.  Whether or not the parts of some  machine of metal, plastic, and rubber get moved in this way or that by my bodily effort – that is definitely something indifferent.  Whether or not my muscles, bones, circulatory system benefit in minor incremental manners from the physical activity I devote time to – that’s also indifferent.  But what I decide to do with this body that I have – that is something up to me, something that is not indifferent. 

Recognizing The Gym As Shared Space

One main way in which I make use of Stoic philosophy at the gym stems from a tendency that I have, and admit with some embarrassment, but which I suspect many people can easily relate to.  Nearly all of the exercises that I do at the gym are on machines.  Either they are weights machines or they are machines set up for cardio.  Like many gym-goers, I have my established routines for how I cycle through using each machine in turn.  I like to start my weight circuit with the rowing machine, then the pulldown, then the shoulder press, and so on.  I start my cardio workout on one of the elliptical machines, and then move on to a rowing machine.  There is no reason that the exercises that I do need to go in any particular order.  It’s just a matter of habits that I have generated for myself over time.

Here’s what I find myself experiencing, still far too often, but also find some remedies for in Stoic philosophy.  It is a set of needless and unproductive thoughts and associated emotions that arise within a particular context. These reveal some of my own assumptions as well, judgements that I am working to erode over time, because they are selfish, irrational, and harmful.  In a strict sense, considered in light of Stoic philosophy, they are also vicious – specifically foolish and unjust – and setting them down in print makes this pretty clear.  I have to go through a similar evaluative process when I identify them and bring them up for review in my own mind, usually as I’m laboring away at a physical exercise.

I will be on the machine that I’m currently using, laboring away at whatever exercise that machine is set up for, and I already have my eye on another machine – the one that comes next in my usual sequence.  If someone else is using it, and I am getting close to finishing with my current machine, I find myself feeling emotions like annoyance, anxiousness, and impatience, often directed at that person on the other machine.  It’s worse if there is some seeming legitimacy to those feelings – for example, when you see a person taking what appears to be an inordinately long time to knock out their sets, spending the intervals between dawdling on their phone.

Notice what I did just there, by using the term “dawdling”.  In Stoic terms, that’s a judgement or opinion (doxa or dogma, to use Epictetus’ terms) which might indeed be quite true, but which could also be false.  I’m assuming something, or most likely, quite a lot of things, in making that judgement.  It’s also a way in which I’m giving assent to what Stoics call an appearance or impression (phantasia), namely the impression that the person on the other machine is wasting time doing something unimportant on their phone, rather than getting on with the workout they ought to be engaging in, if they’re on that machine.  Practicing Stoicism means identifying when one is engaging in this sort of unfounded judgement-making, when one is reacting automatically or unconsciously to appearances, rather than taking a pause to test them.  It could be that the person is on their phone for good reason.  Perhaps they got an important text, or an email came through that has to be attended to.  Maybe they use an app to track their exercises. 

Let’s say that the person in question really is wasting time, watching videos on YouTube about something trivial and totally unconnected with exercise.  Let’s say that he or she is caught up in that, losing track of how much time is passing in between their sets.  Why should that be upsetting to me?  I rarely know any of the people I am sharing the gym space with. Nearly all of us have headphones in.  How is it any of my business whether that other person gets a good workout in?  It brings to mind Epictetus’ warning:

Somebody is hasty about bathing; do not say he bathes badly, but that he is hasty about bathing.  Someone drinks a great deal of wine; do not say that he drinks badly, but that he drinks a great deal.  For until you have decided what judgement prompts him, how do you know what he is doing is bad?  And thus the final result will not be that you receive convincing impressions of some things, but give your assent to other things.

Enchiridion 45  

What other people do at the gym is really their own business.  So why then do I find myself having these responses – before I am even finished with my own exercise – to another person using the machine I intend to use next?  My desire is already stretching out into the near future to the thing I plan to use next.  It’s not unlike a person who already has a plate in front of him, with a dish he hasn’t finished yet, looking over at the next dish he wants to eat, and getting upset seeing other people eating it.  There’s something profoundly foolish about that, and even more so in the gym.  Someone else might eat all the deserts while I’m polishing off my main course.  But nobody is taking away my possibility of using an exercise machine by sitting on it.  I just have to be patient, and sooner or later the machine will be free.

When I examine my own thoughts about these matters, in the situation, what I realize is going on is that I have desires, emotions, and thoughts that from a Stoic perspective could use some serious work.  Human beings do tend to have a natural self-centeredness, not just in terms of what we desire and what we value, but also in the assumptions we make and the lines of reasoning we follow out, and I am no exception.  I have to remind myself in these situations that I am the one who is allowing myself to become upset by assenting to impressions I have of the situation, by failing to reflect upon what might or might not be the case, by investing my desires into things I have no control over, by making faulty assumptions about what ought to be the case, and by inconsistently acting as if I am – if not the center of the universe – at least the center of the gym.

Whether or not I do my exercises in the more or less arbitrary sequence that I have settled into is really unimportant.  The only thing that gives it some glamour of significance is my own desire to do my exercises in that order.  They can be shuffled around and no real harm will come to me.  The weights aren’t going to be less heavy if I do the leg press last instead of in the middle of my workout.  The rowing machine will function the same if I get on it at the end as well.  Nobody is hindering or preventing me from exercising by doing their own workout.

Marcus Aurelius constantly reminds himself – and Epictetus and Seneca frequently teach – that we are all parts of greater wholes, systems whose components can cooperate and harmonize with each other in productive ways, or oppose each other and create conflicts.  I’m not claiming that somehow the Wisconsin Athletic Club is an organization in which all of us members are working together for some common goal.  But what it does provide is indeed a space that we all share and have to take turns in.  It may sound quite silly, but I have to remind myself of the fact that I’m definitely not the only person there to get a workout, and that it’s irrational for me to be mentally laying claim on a machine that someone else is using, when I’m still using another machine – one that yet another person might also be waiting to use.

Through catching my own thought and emotional processes, recalling relevant Stoic teachings, and deliberately steering myself onto a path informed by those, I’ve noticed a difference over time.  I still do find myself falling into this dynamic of worry over being able to move right from the machine I’m currently using to the one that comes next in my workout routine – and I’m not happy to admit a foible like that – but it does happen less often.  And when it does arise, the emotional responses feel less intense and do not last as long.  The thought processes are more tractable to being brought in line with better practical reasoning.  And that is a sign that I’m making progress in developing what the Stoics call the ruling faculty of my mind, getting it too into better condition through appropriate and consistent exercise.

 Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

One thought on “Stoic Reflections From The Gym (part 1) by Greg Sadler”

  1. I started practicing body weight calisthenics & street workout more than two years ago. Stoicism actually led me to it. I cancelled my gym membership and hit the metal bar like the Ancient Greeks did. Calisthenics and Stoicism seem to be made for each other:
    1. Calisthenics is derived from Kalios (κάλλος) and sthenos (σθένος) meaning beautiful strength. It pre-dates Socrates. Modern sterile gyms with machines and treadmills are a modern invention that encourage unnatural movement and practice.
    2. Calisthenics emphasizes natural movements to build functional strength and aerobic capacity. It was the warrior choice in Ancient Greece. Spies from Xerxes army observed the Spartans training in calisthenics as they reposed from battle. Alexander was a practitioner.
    3. Calisthenics is minimalist. Little to no equipment is required. I can go to a park with a full calisthenics rig set up or improvise a pull up bar out of anything overhead and a dip bars from a chair. I can do a full body workout with nothing but my body and hundreds of variations.
    4. Calisthenics is best practiced outdoors. I train at a park. The session brings me closer to nature and fresh air. I train all year round.
    5. Calisthenics is free. It costs absolutely nothing. I had a gym membership I felt pressured to use because of the payments. Now I train 6 days a week for free at the park because I love it.
    6. I have become more aware of my body. Trying to execute a front or rear lever, balancing on rings and practicing a handstand requires complete body focus and mindfulness. You are completely immersed in the moment. Time freezes and you feel as if body and mind are one.
    7. Calisthenics is a discipline. Beginners make rapid gains but progress to intermediate and advanced levels can take years of consistent training. A strict planche or a hand stand push up to straddle planche can take a decade of training. The more you put in the more you get out. There is ecstasy in executing one’s first strict form muscle up. Calisthenics has made me more focused and aware of my abilities and limitations mental and physical.
    8. The body aesthetics become secondary to executing a hold or move in perfect form. I’m 52 and have a six pack and muscles I never had before. I get comments on my appearance all the time but its not why I do it.
    9. There is a world wide community around it. We are a global movement that is growing. Practitioners, even strangers, encourage each other online and at the park. I can go to any park in the world and feel welcome because we all share the joy and hard work that goes in. Calisthenics removes all boundaries and divisions be they racial, language, ethnic, class, age and gender.
    10. Never too old to start. Look online and you will find 80-90 year old Russian Babushkas and Chinese Men at the park doing pull ups and push-ups and holding human flags. These people started as kids and still do it.

    I strongly recommend Calisthenics – Street Workout. The practice will enrich your practical application of Stoicism.

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