Saturday, April 5, 2014

Why Being Skeptical Can Be Good for Working Out (Exercise and the Hellenistic Philosophies: Part II)

When I first started thinking about it, I didn’t see how I would be able to apply Skepticism—as practiced by the ancient Greeks—to exercise. So I started this part of my project without much direction. I read over my few notes about Skepticism before a weightlifting workout one day, and thought about them as I moved through the workout. This first attempt didn’t go all that well because I was distracted by other thoughts, but I did jot this down in my workout journal:

Perception: I’m fatigued.
Antithesis: I’m not fatigued.
Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. 

A few days later during a DVD routine, I worked with this idea again and found it to be more fruitful. The routine includes a two-minute interval of cardio in the plank position, which I invariably find extremely challenging. I always think things like “I can’t go on” or “I’m probably not going to make it through without resting.” This time, with Skepticism in mind, I countered that pessimism by suspending judgment. “I may be able to do this or I may not,” I told myself. “I’ll just keep going as long as I can.” 

A search result for “plank exercise suffering.” They don’t seem to me to be suffering all that much… (Source: Pinterest.)

While I did end up having to pause for a couple seconds, I enjoyed the tranquility this philosophical attitude brought to the exercise. How does it help me to fret over whether I have enough stamina? It doesn’t. And it doesn’t always help to tell yourself you can do it, when you know that many times in the past you haven’t been able to do it. I’m not sure that skeptical thoughts are always more helpful than self-affirmation, but my experience has encouraged me to try them more when I’m doing difficult exercise.

It also occurred to me that day that the Skeptic school’s avoidance of dogma is a good thing for the fitness world to embrace.1 To be convinced that one way of doing a certain exercise is the only correct way—to not entertain even for a moment that you could be mistaken—seems wrongheaded. The same goes for dogmas about the best types of exercise. “Cycling is the best workout there is.” “Heavier weights with fewer repetitions is the fastest way to build muscle—no doubt about it.” “Never, ever stretch like that.” These types of beliefs don’t belong in a thoughtful approach to fitness. There may be what seems like strong evidence to support certain ways of exercising, but it’s always worth asking questions like “What makes you so sure?” and “Isn’t it possible that you’re wrong?”

I do want to acknowledge that Skepticism taken to its extreme complicates exercise. When I shared my ideas for this post with a friend, he asked me, “Why do you even exercise at all?” “Because it makes me feel good,” I played along, sensing where this was heading. “What’s your foundation for that belief?” he asked. And so on. If we can’t be certain that exercise has any benefits, why do it? Then, of course, the question is, why do anything?

One thing I wrote down about Skepticism at Richard Gilmore’s talk was “Stop trying to get the thing you want.” It’s pretty hard to exercise without trying to get the thing you want, whether that thing is a better mood, weight loss, the envy of your friends, the attentions of your crush, or something else. And in the short term, the thing you want is to get through the workout in one piece. So again, Skepticism can complicate exercise. But as I have learned, it also provides a tool, the suspension of judgment, that can make exercising a better experience. 

1. Regarding the avoidance of dogma, Bertrand Russell does note in The History of Western Philosophy, “Scepticism as a philosophy is not merely doubt, but what may be called dogmatic doubt. The man of science says ‘I think it is so-and-so, but I am not sure.’ The man of intellectual curiosity says ‘I don’t know how it is, but I hope to find out.’ The philosophical Sceptic says ‘nobody knows, and nobody ever can know.’ It is this element of dogmatism that makes the system vulnerable. Sceptics, of course, deny that they assert the impossibility of knowledge dogmatically, but their denials are not very convincing.” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972, p. 234)

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