This time of year, my thoughts turn to adventures in the snow, especially the tantalizing 160 km Canadian Ski Marathon. The CSM easily fits archetypal male adventure narratives, or what a friend of mine once called the genre of “Men Who Die in the Cold.” You hear stories, like the one about the man who did the gold-level marathon each year with a frozen fish—“dinner”—strapped to his back. But the CSM actually emphasizes a very inclusive and open understanding of adventure. Thanks in part to adventure narratives from people with diverse abilities, ages, sexualities, and cultures, we know that there are many different ways to be an adventurer. What counts as an adventure is relative to your personal and social circumstances. Because the focus of the CSM is skiing not “winning,” skiers can design their own adventure while still experiencing the fun of a shared event. You happily find all sorts skiing the CSM.
Adventures like the CSM have, I believe, something to teach us about how fitness contributes to well-being and a good, flourishing life. And this is that fitness matters less than you might think. While I fully agree that exercise is important for physical and mental well-being, there are at least two difficulties with “fitness.” First, fitness is not by itself a goal worth pursuing. We want to be fit because it will help us achieve things we desire, like living a longer, better life, or do fun things like skiing, walking, or chair racing. My guess is that if you pursue fitness for its own sake, you are going to come up empty. The second issue is that for many, fitness goals are tied to body image ideals which are in turn tied to the judgments and evaluations of others. By focusing on how “fit” or “attractive” your body is, you are likely focusing on evaluations that are external to your identity, needs, and well-being.
One problem with focusing on these kinds of external evaluations is that they can sap your motivation. Exercising to look good for others, please others, and avoid negative judgments is dispiriting. Granted, motivation is a complex phenomenon. But my most successful training happens when I do it because it feels good and inspires feelings of adventure. Fitness happens as I experience joie de vivre, test limits, face fears, navigate risks, have fun, be with friends, and wholeheartedly engage the natural world. Motivation depends crucially on setting internally meaningful goals and it is easy to find meaningful goals in adventure.
“External” fitness and body image goals in sport also appear to undermine happiness. Research suggests that people who have obsessive passions for their sport—that is, they ruminate about how their sport relates to self-worth and social acceptance—are less happy than those with more harmonious passions. Those with harmonious passions for their sport—that is, those who do not ruminate and who are better able to achieve “flow” while engaged in their favorite activity—have greater well-being and higher achievement in general. (See the work of Robert Vallerand and Geneviève Mageau.) When we ruminate about body image and fitness ideals, we miss out on the wonderfully enlivening emotions—awe, fear, joy, passion, exhilaration—that adventures offer. When we allow ourselves to experience these emotions fully, we develop our ability to experience flow and consequently, happiness.
Framing athletic experience with extrinsic motivators like body image or fitness levels also won’t help much with living a more ethically meaningful life. As cheating athletes show, fitness is no loyal partner to ethics. But a wholehearted adventurous spirit might be. In “Climbing Philosophy For Everyone,” Pam Sailors draws a link between ethical action and climbers of two different stripes. “Summiteers,” who focus on getting to the summit and doing so the fastest and with the most fitness, are less likely to help other climbers in trouble. “Mountaineers,” who focus on the experience of climbing mountains, fostering relationships in their climbing teams, and gaining self-knowledge are more likely to abandon their climbs to help others. People with a harmonious sense of adventure focus on meaningful internal values, which includes fostering those values and caring for others.
But perhaps the nicest advantage of adventure over fitness is that adventure isn’t tied to success in the same way. Misadventures can be just as valuable for your life. Just before the Gatineau Loppet last winter, I came down with a bad cold. My training for it hadn’t gone well and the cold seemed like a good sign that I should sit it out. But I really didn’t want to miss my first loppet—and ski—in gorgeous Gatineau Park. And besides, I could always leave the race if I had to, right? Well, I didn’t bail, but you would be right to suspect things didn’t go well. I nearly missed the race start because, after a long washroom line-up, I lost track of my family and didn’t want to begin without waving to my daughter. I followed the slow start with slow skiing: in my weakened state the snow felt like fudge. Then about 5 km in, a skier who couldn’t stop crashed into me when someone wiped out in front of us on a downhill. Toques everywhere. By the 10 km mark, I thought I was going to drown in my own immunological goo.
But I kept going, and I’m glad I did. I felt such joy seeing my little daughter wildly ringing her cowbell and yelling “Go Mommy” as I crossed the finish. I met my goals of experiencing a loppet and skiing in Gatineau Park. And I learned that I could overcome “negative” self-talk like “you’re going to get pneumonia, you fool.” Good to know in case I’m ever, say, skiing with the flu while being tracked by hungry coyotes. But the point is that I took away some valuable lessons and experiences and I didn’t spend any time ruminating about fitness or body image or social acceptance afterwards. I could have cared less—I made it out alive! And I’m guessing that elite skiers who engage their sports with harmonious passion feel similarly. Good adventures have a lot to do with how you handle and value the misadventures. They are not made of ruminations about who has superior maximal aerobic capacity.
I don’t want to sound unsympathetic—au contraire. The additive effect of body image and fitness ideals from countless sources in our society is substantially influential. But we are nonetheless responsible, individually and collectively, for the goals we set. In my view, wholehearted, adventurous engagement with your activity is the best antidote for fitness and body image ideals. And the best motivation for tackling damn fool events like the Canadian Ski Marathon. Fish or no fish.
Moira Howes, B.Sc., M.A., Ph.D., is a philosophy professor at Trent University. She philosophizes about lots of things, but mainly about argumentation, biology, feminism, intellectual virtue, and objectivity. Most recently she has been writing about mindfulness, virtue, and adventure sport. Her favorite activities include trail running, skiing, snowshoeing, canoeing, and hiking.