Thursday, November 1, 2012

Philosophical or psychological approach to fitness?

In 1913 philosophy and psychology filed for divorce when a hundred and seven European philosophers signed a petition demanding the end of philosophy professorships for experimental psychologists. The children were split up, property divided and both groups quite happily went their separate ways.

The basis of the amicable divorce settlement was this:  Philosophy uncovers logical principles and describes the values we should hold; psychology deals with the facts of how our brains actual operate. Psychology demonstrates how our brains deploys heuristics, shortcuts which lack of the reliability of sound logical argument; philosophy creates and enforces logical systems to overcome intuitive but unreliable reasoning. Philosophy requires the research driven methods of psychology to be more than mere opinion.

But lately psychology has started to violate the terms of the divorce by moving away from researching the workings of the mind and into the territory of philosophical values and lifestyle. The last twenty years alone has brought ever increasing emphasis on self-creation through positive psychology,  behavior theory and goal orientated psychology.   In response philosophers are recommending we take a step back and ask why we hold our values in the first place.  In this post I will briefly contrast the psychological and philosophical based approaches to physical exercise and outline why myself and entire sport psychology profession disagree.

From our workplace to our leisure time an increasing number of us are obsessed with goal setting.  We are constantly bombarded with advertising and well meaning advice on setting our goals to achieve our dream bodies, our dream job and fulfill our magical potential.

The argument behind goal setting is straight forward : To reach our dreams we should set goals along the way to keep us motivated and working that little bit harder. Unattainable goals are counter productive so goals must be S.M.A.R.T - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timed.  In the gym, this translates to exercise programs, targets, diet plans and weight watching.

But goals are inevitably driven by the ego. When we achieve our goals, we feel good about our achievement.   This feeling is only temporary; the ego then forces us to struggle towards another higher goal. Conversely, if we fail to reach our goals we blame ourselves for being weak willed and feel guilty. 

Sustainable progress is not always possible and most of us will very quickly reach the point where we cannot advance any further.  Then we become disillusioned because the ego demands constant  achievement and inevitably we give up.

The effects can be seen throughout the western world where despite having easy access to healthy food, gyms, exercise programs and a constant bombardment of helpful advice, cardiovascular disease is increasing, not decreasing.  People will adapt a new exercise program, feel proud of their achievements for a few weeks, reach that point where regular progress is no longer possible and give up.  A few months later, the same process is repeated.  Another symptom is the 'short sharp approach' where people almost atone for unhealthy lifestyle with detox diets and boot camps that rarely yield long term results.

The problem with the modern emphasis on self-creation and goal achievement is that it ignores the externals.  Most of us are limited by our jobs, our free time, our genes and our characters. That's a deeply unfashionable word -  'limited'  - and yet it's true.

So what is a philosophical approach?  Simply one that recognizes exercise must be performed regularly and constantly throughout a persons life. A philosophical approach will emphasis that exercise must become a habit, that exercise is something that is worth doing as a thing-in-itself and not for goals like beauty or social status.  Philosophy will speak of values and duties rather than individualized achievements and goal setting. It will speak of adapting a form of exercise suited to your character, performing it until it becomes a habitual routine and adapting performance to take account of your age and limitations.

Consider the difference between 'going for a stroll' and 'having to walk'. People will often find themselves quite contently walking for miles without any effort and with no destination in mind. But tell someone he must walk to X in under a certain time and the actual walking will become a chore, something to be finished as quickly as possible with a few minutes of pleasure at the end if the desired goal was reached.  Then the time must be decreased or the distance lengthened until the point is reached where progress is no longer possible. The walk becomes a chore and is stopped.

Final word goes to Crates the Cynic for anyone who feels self-conscious when exercising :
Zeno of Citium in his Anecdotes relates that in a fit of heedlessness he [Crates] sewed a sheepskin to his cloak. He was ugly to look at, and when performing his gymnastic exercises used to be laughed at. He was accustomed to say, raising his hands, "Take heart, Crates, for it is for the good of your eyes and of the rest of your body. You will see these men, who are laughing at you, tortured before long by disease, counting you happy, and reproaching themselves for their sluggishness."[Link]


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