Meaninglessness and Fitness

By Duff McDuffee on June 7th, 2011 1

In our modern society of convenience, our bodies are arbitrary and rarely require moving, or we must move in repetitive patterns. As a result, most of us experience fitness as meaningless. The treadmill or stationary bike is the ultimate symbol for this, as is lifting something heavy and putting it down again. Exercise in a society of convenience where we experience our bodies as an alienated “other” thereby becomes another to-do on an endless list.

Functional fitness puts some meaning back into the structure of our fitness programs by working with the mechanics of our human structure. But functional fitness is often still arbitrary — why become fit? Function for what? Answering “anything” is still too abstract.

When deciding what to be fit for, we are facing questions of Existentialism again: meaning derives from choice, which expresses authenticity. Even 99% of martial arts practice and fitness is meaningless in a world of guns, bioterrorism, and nuclear bombs. Yet we are burdened with the responsibility of having to choose.

Arts like Parkour attempt to solve the problem of meaninglessness movement through authentic creative expression amidst modern landscapes. Bodybuilding addresses the question of our meaningless bodies by turning them into grotesque meat sculptures that simulate strength. Somatic psychotherapies address the problem by experiencing the body as unconscious creative source…but fitness remains unaddressed. Yoga asana treats the modern, arbitrary body as a temple — for better or worse (better: health, calm; worse: body-worship, self-absorption). Some advocate a romantic turn to “natural” movements, some to a Golden Age of fitness, others to generative and highly structured movement patterns. Ultimately though the individual is left to make the choice and take responsibility for creating one’s own meaningful expression.

I’m simultaneously concerned that few will succeed at becoming meaningfully fit, yet also inspired by the deep creativity and play some people are expressing.



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11 responses to “Meaninglessness and Fitness”

  1. fxgeorges says:

    The deal is, though, LayZboys humans really don't need a numeric scale to tell them that they are in trouble—usually it's pretty obvious.

  2. Jacqjolie1 says:

    Duff, I find that as I get older, I get more of the meaning behind fitness (beyond growth – literally – or looking hot). At some point you do make a connection that fitness is about even basic functionality (as simple as being able to carry groceries long distances) into your older years. And the brain. That's a huge motivator for me, as simply a mood elevating technique. But most of the time, I confess, my desire for fitness is nothing more than needing to keep up with my 10 y.o. on the ski hill to make sure he doesn't kill himself (it helps to do a lot of lunges and squats for this) and keeping the golden retriever happy and calm through biking and walks so he doesn't chew furniture. And maybe a desire to reach the top level on the song Rasputin on Just Dance 2 on the Wii. 🙂

    Oh, I should also mention that some of the most enjoyable exercise I've experienced has been Ecstatic Dance. Just loved it.

    • Basic functionality into one's older years is a very real and meaningful reason to exercise—I completely agree. Being 31 and in good physical shape with no pains or injuries, at times it is difficult for me to connect with this reason in a real and direct way however (and thank goodness!). Mood-elevating reasons are more direct for me too—sitting all day in front of various screens, it is a must that I get up and get my heart rate up while moving my body in order to feel sane.

      Lunges and squats are excellent for skiing! 🙂

      I also am a big fan of ecstatic dance. We have a group here in Boulder that does a 5 Rhythms inspired dance group almost every week.

  3. meaningness says:

    What you said about play made me think you might find Exuberant Animal to your liking. His basic idea is that most fitness advice is based on routines needed to become a competition athlete. But most of us won't ever be competition athletes, and don't want to be. Those routines repetitively train highly-specific skills, which is boring and tends to cause injury or overtraining.

    For most people, optimum performance at an artificial task (basketball, whatever) is not the goal. To stay motivated, exercise needs to be interesting and fun—and play meets that criterion.

    I don't like everything about his approach—"creativity" doesn't really seem to be part of it, for instance—but there's a lot I do like.

    Oh, and a big +1 on the ecstatic dance!

    • Thanks for mentioning Exuberant Animal. I have heard of this fellow's writings but have not yet dived deeply into his perspective as of yet.

      I also only recently found your several blogs and other writings and now have another thing to add to my list to dive into!

    • Another thought: I also wonder if there is some motivation for some exercisers to play as if they are competition athletes. The large number of people who participate in triathlons comes to mind, or the seemingly endless interest in training like an MMA (mixed martial artist) fighter. Despite the unlikeliness that they will ever perform at elite levels–due to unfavorable genetics, lack of time to train, etc.–many people (myself included at times) wish to participate in a kind of fantasy of one day being superior.

      I bring this up because of my own dilemmas. I am often swayed by marketing messages for fitness programs that promise elite levels of fitness despite the fact that I don't consider myself an athlete at all and have no hopes of ever being an elite athlete.

      • Andy Fossett says:

        Most people seem to equate fitness with athleticism. We look up to athletes as being the pinnacle of fitness, so it's only natural that promoting a training system as athletic preparation would be an effective marketing technique. In many cases, it's quite an honest one, as a very large number of amateur and professional athletes use tools and methods that are surprisingly unsophisticated.

        Yet, I agree with your thought that most people (though they think they should desire it) do not actually want the same levels of fitness *in those particular metrics* – especially enough to actually train to such a level. Fitness for most people will mean having the ability to do what they habitually without frequent injury.

        So, though we feel our goals should include high level athleticism, most of us just want to feel OK everyday.

        Of course, there are levels of "OK," and numerous ways to achieve it. Some of them are more fun than others. I'm a little biased in this area, but I think it can be fun to learn to move beyond the demands of day-to-day life and seek fitness for various types of play as well.
        My recent post July Seminars at Prime and Wolf Fitness

  4. ramon says:

    With all due respect I find this post rather presumptuous and belittling of others. I understand what you mean in regards to meaningless fitness but at the same time meaning is largely subjective. The person who wants to get stronger, better looking or just be healthy all see meaning in what they do. Who are you to say otherwise because it doesn’t make sense to you? Not to mention that it is pure contradiction when you praise those videos because one is martial arts and an attempt at movnot. You claim martial arts are useless beforehand. I disagree with that point anyway. You say useless because of terrorism. Which makes no sense because many martial arts are not really meant for actual combat in today’s world, they are there for sport or self development (which is meaningful in its own right) and the ones that do focus on combat do so on a personal level not a global or larger scale so the comparison does not apply. Then the other video is a man doing what looks like a modified duck walk. Now what is the point of doing that? it offers no real benefit other than physical experience, which I dont see anything wrong with at all, it just seems like your the one that does.

    • Hello Ramon, thanks for your first comment here at Beyond Growth.

      I'm sorry you misinterpreted my article as presumptuous and belittling of others. I'm afraid that you misinterpreted my argument and in fact do not understand what I mean in regards to meaninglessness and fitness. The view "meaning is largely subjective" is in fact what I mean by meaninglessness!

      Allow me to explain. Once upon a time, if we didn't move our bodies we would die very quickly. People long ago needed to move for long hours each day to hunt and gather food, to build shelter, to fight other tribes and wild predators, to travel with the animals they hunted, then to plow the fields and build towns and cities, to make things with their hands, etc. Nowadays, most people in most professions in developed nations can get away with hardly moving their bodies at all and still make a living, eat fresh food, be endlessly entertained, etc.

      The meaning of moving one's body when hunting is NOT largely subjective—it is largely objective. The meaning is "if I don't move, I will die; if I do move, I will live." It is very tangible, very obvious, and very significantly meaningful. The meaning of walking a treadmill however is much more abstract—it is "this is good for my heart" or "this will make me look good," but looking good or doing something for an organ system in the body is far more abstract than "I'm hungry—if I don't hunt and kill an animal for food I will die today."

    • As human society has developed, we have focused largely on convenience—for better or worse—which is precisely why we don't have to move our bodies. Coming up with labor saving devices—from the ox-driven plow, to the cotton gin, to the automobile, to the dishwasher—has removed the need to move our physical bodies more and more. This has freed (most of) us from the necessity back-breaking labor and created contexts in which we can move for fun, for entertainment, for sports, for personal development, etc.—but it comes with the twin burden of having to decide consciously to move one's body, rather than passively submitting to the duty of hunting or other physical labor for survival.

      One theme of Existentialism is this pair of opposites of freedom and responsibility with regards to choice—throughout most of human history, we didn't have the choice to move how we wanted to, but we also didn't have the burden of making the choice (and thus possibly making the wrong choice, the less meaningful choice, the less authentic choice, etc.). Now we are burdened with both making the choice and deciding on what it means to us, not only with fitness but with choice of marriage partner, with choice of place to live, with choice of career, heck even with choice of toothpaste, of brand of car to drive (or whether to drive), etc. etc. etc.

    • So even though fitness may have meaning for a specific individual, that meaning must be chosen by the individual and thus objectively the pursuit is meaningless (or even meaningless to a different individual!).

      As far as martial arts goes, in China kung fu is moving more and more to a showy entertainment called wushu. Hardcore martial artists deplore this trend, but the older forms of martial arts are dying out precisely because they aren't nearly as useful for practical self-defense in a world of guns, and a world where consuming entertainment is a far more popular past time.

      There are also nearly infinite competing ways of developing one's self in today's world, many of which involve being sedentary in front of a computer, thus making one's body less and less directly relevant to the task.

      So in essence, we are actually in agreement. We have the choice and the responsibility to make fitness meaningful, in fact we cannot escape this burden for "if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice" (to quote the band Rush). Within this novel human challenge, I find that a general framework for making the choice is to express one's authenticity, which will necessarily be a personal expression and unlikely to appeal to many others. Another option is to give up one's authenticity and submit to some structured approach based on someone else's authenticity, but this is again a way of opting out of one's responsibility for choosing.

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