fitness · motivation

Making a Habit of It

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

In his blog post, “Get Disciplined, not Motivated”  Joel Runyon writes that to achieve our fitness goals, we need discipline, not motivation. Though I prefer the language of “habit” to “discipline,” I think this is exactly right. Runyon describes motivation as fleeting, everywhere and nowhere, and situational, whereas habit is regular, routine, and consistent. Certainly this is true for writing. Wait for inspiration and you’re doomed. Instead, the best, most productive writers, schedule writing and make it happen whether or not they are motivated or inspired.  I think it’s also true for physical training.
What do I do to make it happen?
When I’m training in the morning, I go to bed early. I drink lots of water the night before. I pack my bag or lay out my clothes. When I’m on my bike, I check the tires the night before, make sure my lights are fully charged, and that I know exactly where I’m headed.  When the alarm goes off at “stupid o’clock” (as my Australian friends call 5 am)  I get up I go on auto-pilot to get out the door. I don’t think about it. Hard for a philosopher!
But I think Runyon is right when he says, “Remove your brain from your equation. Your mind sucks. It will tell you all of the things you’re not capable of doing because it wants to protect itself. It wants to play it safe. It wants to be comfortable. Meanwhile, your body will sit there and not say anything to the contrary even though it knows it can run triathlons, marathons, climb mountains, and get a six pack if you just give it the chance. Do a manual override. Tell your brain to shut up and just go do it anyways. Turn your brain off. When you brain tells you it’s impossible, tell your brain, That’s nice, I’m going to do it anyways.” (Six pack abs aside, so not my goal!)
This is for training. There’s lots I do for fun too. I don’t need habit to get me out the door for soccer (yay, kicking a ball around with friends!) or  casual bike rides with friends (yay conversation and coffee!). I want to write about the difference for me between “training” and all of the variety of things I do that count as “exercise.” But that’s another post!

Is Faster Fitter?

I recognize that paying for personal training means paying someone to make me do what I don’t think I’ll do on my own, and so that on some level I *want* to be forced to work out harder than feels totally comfortable. Given that, it’s kind of irrational to refuse to do what I’m told.

So the latest thing I’m being made to do is run around the block as a warm-up at the very beginning of our session. That’s not so bad, actually. But he’s timing it. The other day was the first time and I came in at 3 minutes, 30 seconds.

I guess that’s pretty slow because — let’s call him Josh — Josh seemed to think I should be aiming to improve on that. He said something like, “that’s your baseline. You’ll do better next time.” Thing is, I wasn’t terribly disappointed because I don’t really aspire to run fast, or even faster, than I run at the moment.

I am slow — yesterday morning when I was out for my run it took me a really long to time to catch up to and pass a woman who was out walking her dogs. My slow run was only marginally faster than her fast walk. In terms of physical achievement, it’s quite amazing to me that I am running at all.

When I started, that was what Josh and I disagreed most about. I don’t know many runners who haven’t suffered injuries and I didn’t want to be among them (so far, no injuries here). The only thing I really want to be able to do (in the short-term) is run 20 minutes in a row without having to take a walk break (right now I’m up to 7).

So when I said that I didn’t really care to make a faster time, Josh would have none of it. I guess just about everyone who runs wants to be able to run faster. And my question is this: Why? Is faster fitter? I’m the same on my bike. I like a leisurely ride. I don’t really mind if people are zooming past me or pedaling more vigorously. That’s all okay with me.

Now maybe, as I run more and ride more I just will become faster. That’s okay with me, too. But at this point I’m not motivated by it as a goal. And maybe once I get to my 20 minutes, I’ll feel like I want to go faster (though I’m guessing I’ll be more inclined to want to extend it to 30 minutes, or I’ll start thinking about going further rather than faster).

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying running at my pace. It does feel like hard work, like I’m getting “fitter.” And the fact that when I started I could only do 2 minutes in a row and now I can do 7 (3 times!) seems to indicate some sort of improvement. Maybe next week in my pre-workout round-the-block I’ll try pushing just a bit harder, not because I want to, but because I’m paying to be made to do what I wouldn’t naturally choose to do.

fitness · motivation

Tracking and the Panopticon

Who among us who has tried to lose weight hasn’t “tracked”? That’s when you write down every morsel of food and drink that you ingest, including the portion to the gram.

I have weighed and measured, counted “points,” calories, fat grams, fibre grams, carbs and protein, and written it all down dutifully and precisely in a journal or on a chart or on special forms issued to me by various programs I have paid over the years to help me lose a few pounds. I have also tracked exercise by time, intensity, etc.

And after my lengthy experience with tracking, I have come to despise it. It’s not because I’m lazy (though I can be) or it’s inconvenient (though it certainly is). It’s not because it doesn’t “help” to see it all in print or to know that the “if you bite it, write it” rule is in effect. It helps in its own oppressive way.

The reason I despise tracking is that I see it as a kind of monitoring and self-regulation that functions very like the panopticon.  In case you don’t remember (or never knew), Jeremy Bentham (18th C philosopher) came up with this design for prisons such that the inmates wouldn’t be able to tell whether they were being watched at any given time.

Michel Foucault built on this idea, driving home the point that the power over the prisoners arose from their ignorance about whether they were being observed.  The discipline came through their self-monitoring more than through external force.  Feminist philosopher, Sandra Bartky, gave this scenario a uniquely feminist interpretation, arguing that women exert this kind of self-discipline over their bodies. The monitoring is internalized and self-imposed. It’s that self-imposed monitoring and need to exert control that concerns me about tracking.

I know that there are studies that show quite definitively that it’s difficult to lose weight if you don’t track, that tracking keeps us “accountable,” and even that it enables us to know not just when we are eating too much but when we are not eating enough.  But it is also oppressive and somehow reveals an attitude of mistrust about our ability to make good decisions for ourselves.  We need to be disciplined, controlled, regulated — but since that’s too difficult to do, we need to be talked into disciplining, controlling and regulating ourselves.

I remember joining a weight loss program once that was big on tracking.  If I had a “bad” week, the “leader” would ask to see my tracker the week after.  So for that week, the tracking had to be flawless. But half the time she wouldn’t even look at it that next week. Just knowing that she might was enough to “keep me in line.”  Very panopticon-esque, don’t you think?

But today I have a different vision for myself.  And it involves more freedom, less self-monitoring. And if it means carrying a few more pounds than I would if I tracked regularly, then it’s worth it to me. My version of fitness includes commitment, but doesn’t include close self-surveillance. [image is from the wikipedia entry on the panopticon, drawn by Wiley Reveley, 1791]

fitness · inclusiveness

Inclusive Fitness?

There’s a lot of good information on, some of it included in this slideshow, “The 20 Best Fitness Tips of All Time.” Nevertheless, the post raised some questions for me. It has a very narrow and gendered view of fitness and who gets to be fit. We see slender, youthful, and non-disabled bodies in the opening shot. The male has a six-pack and the female is both thin and busty. We don’t need to see their faces to know these are young people. A quick read of the comments will show that in the original photo, the woman was photoshopped to be even thinner.  So men can be muscular; but the fit woman is thin.  We see this theme repeated in later slides.  Though there is one photo of a woman doing squats with a barbell on the beach, all of the images taken in the weight room are of men. This lack of representation of women in the weight room perpetuates the stereotype of this part of the gym as a male, testosterone-filled domain. And if these images are supposed to be representative, not only is the world of fitness populated by people under thirty (except perhaps the guy doing the perfect push-up; he might be in his thirties), the majority of whom are men, but just about everyone (except one runner) is white.  I’m old school about one fairly simple staple in feminist discourse: people begin to believe they can achieve something if they see others like themselves represented doing the thing they want to achieve.  And on the flip side of this, if we represent the gym as a predominantly young, white, male domain, that sets an expectation that could have an excluding effect.  So while I like much of this article’s content and will even follow some of its advice (like the chocolate milk advice — that’s awesome! I will be having a glass of chocolate soy milk after my next workout), I would like it better if it had a more inclusive approach to the photos, and didn’t stereotype “the fit body” in a gendered way, and as young and white.


Philosophy of Sport at the APA

I’ve just recently started thinking philosophically about sports and I’ve written a paper in the area. I’m going to be presenting it at the Eastern meeting of the American Philosophical Association meeting in Atlanta this December.

Here’s the abstract:

Can Women be Cyclists? Thoughts on Bodies, Bicycles, and Feminism

This paper examines arguments about the suitability of women’s bodies for the activity and sport of cycling. The first part of this paper recaps the role the bicycle played in the women’s liberation movement and examines the arguments about women’s bodies put forth by the medical community which formed the basis of the anti-women’s cycling movement. While we might think ourselves beyond 19th century views of women’s bodies and their suitability for riding bikes, the second part of the paper seeks to look at some modern views of women’s cycling and shows that views about the differences between male and female bodies haven’t entirely left the ethos of cycling in particular in the area of racing. I also ask whether we might reinterpret some aspects of the ethos of cycling to encourage women’s participation in cycling and develop a more inclusive account of the activity so as to better capture the involvement of women in the sport of cycling.

Here’s the full line up:


GIV – 2. International Association for Philosophy of Sport

2:00 – 5:00 p.m.

Chair: Joan Grassbaugh Forry (Linfield College)


Michael Brady (Southern Illinois University-Carbondale)

“Crossfit: A Pragmatic Philosophy of Sport”
Samantha Brennan (University of Western Ontario)”Can Women be Cyclists? Some Thoughts on Women’s Bodies, Bicycles, and Feminism”Michael Brownstein (New Jersey Institute of Technology)

“A Determination Bordering on Possession: Nondeliberative Agency and Expert Athletics”

Aaron Harper (University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign)

“Playing with Nietzsche: Play, Nihilism, and Value Creation”

addiction · body image · diets · fat · fitness · health · motivation · weight loss

Fitness “Goals”

When Samantha posted to her Facebook page some months ago that she wanted to be her fittest at fifty, the comments heated up about what the appropriate measures should be. Weight and BMI are obviously not great measures of general fitness. What about cardiovascular health or run times? Or cycling times? Strength has its own measures – how much can you bench press? How many push-ups can you do? Pull-ups? And then there are sheer endurance and sheer intensity—Samantha’s cross-fits workouts, for example, sound absolutely impossible to me.

I have goal-resistance because they have started to feel like traps to me, a chronic yo-yo dieter and sometimes obsessive exerciser. Between the ages 23-33, I worked out like crazy, spending 2-3 hours in the gym several times a week. I loved the feeling of strength that came from pumping iron, and my heroes and fitness role models were female body-builders like Gladys Portugues, Carla Dunlap, and Corey Everson. No, I didn’t have very diverse measures of what it meant to be “fit.” As much as I enjoyed getting strong, I was also after the aesthetic of the hard female body (not that I ever attained it). Aside: there is a fascinating discussion of the female body ideal for competitive body-builders in Pumping Iron II: The Women. In the early days of competition, they were torn between the standard of sheer size and muscle (Bev Francis) or of a more “feminine” body (Rachel McLish).

That’s why I like the yoga mindset so much – no big goals or competition, just a consistent practice. So when I discovered Iyengar yoga in 2000, I left the gym for a more gentle approach. Since then, until a few months ago, my two main activities have been yoga and walking with an occasional session on the elliptical machine. But over time, I have stopped feeling “fit.” My energy started to wane. Groceries began to feel heavier.

So in March I went back to the weight room and worked with a personal trainer to start strength training again, this time in addition to my regular yoga practice (Iyengar and hot, 3-4 times a week). My trainer got me back into running for the first time in over twenty years. I’m slow and I can’t run for very many minutes in a row. I started out with 2 minutes of running to every 1 minute of walking, 6 times, with a 5 minute warm-up at the front end and a 5-minute cool-down at the end. I’m now up to 3 sets of 7 minutes of running and 1 minute of walking, with the 5 minute warm-up and cool-down.

I’m not sure what I’m aiming for exactly over the next two years, but I can say this: before it snows, I’d like to be able to run for 20 minutes in a row without having to walk. I’m not sure what that will say about how “fit” I am. But it doesn’t seem to me to be the kind of aspirational trap some of my goals of earlier days were. I’ll see where I go with that and take it from there.