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Fitness - Approach it like a Spartan

Fitness is the ability to overcome adversity, to triumph. It involves a mindset that goes way beyond the gym.

We tend to think of fitness in terms of cardio, maybe weight training, HIIT if we're up with the trends. We want to lose some pounds, look good in tight clothes, we care enough about our health to make an effort.

All of these are fair enough, but we can take it a lot further. Underlying these modest aspirations are both an aesthetic and an ethic worth exploring.

By aesthetic I mean a look. For men its most important feature is less health, but strength. Hitting the weights generates an outward impression of strength and power. Pursuing a sport also builds in other qualities, stamina, coordination, balance, explosive power, flexibility. We can capture this in a word - athleticism. The athletic look is an attractive one.

For women the list of qualities are different, but they include proportion, balance, flexibility, grace. Health is very important too, it shows through in good skin, colour.

I'll return to this theme in another post, but here I will just state bluntly,

The masculine arena is one whose ultimate form is combat.

The feminine arena is one whose ultimate form is dance.

This is not to say men can't dance, they can, and should, or that women can't fight, they can, and do, usually through words and emotional manipulation. That's their strength. Is fine.

As men, in our modern world we don't get the opportunity often to participate in combat. I spent four years in the military, the closest I got to combat was a game of touch footy. That was a shame, it was profoundly disappointing. I hope to make up for that disappointment in other ways.

At the same time, combat understood more loosely, is everywhere. For men, the world is still a competitive environment, we have to compete for everything, for girls, for jobs, for promotions. Success always comes hard, for every winner there is a loser. The masculine world is hierarchical, this why honour, rank, prestige have always been so prominent, all of us are ranked somewhere on the ladder, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not.

We live in societies today that are feminine-primary in the sense that the values which predominate, are pushed by the establishment, and reflected in popular culture, are the feminine values of equality, and compassion.

The male world, however, is as competitive as ever.

Men don't just compete against each other, they also confront adversity in every sphere of life, including the natural world, the outdoors. Men climb mountains or walk to the poles, 'because they are there', in other words, pretty much just for fun, as a celebration of their masculinity, their ability to overcome hostile environments, to triumph, because that's what men do.

We also compete against ourselves, we test our limits, we push them, try to get past them. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don't, but we get up and try again.

My point here is to frame our idea of fitness, and our fitness training, in these terms. What we are trying to do is build our capacity to overcome adversity, to triumph over hostile circumstances. It is really a concept of resilience. It may be the ability to lift heavy objects, or it might be explosive power, or stamina, or tolerance of pain.

If we accept this as our frame, then it is easy to extend it outside the gym. I spent the summer fighting fires in the bush, at times the environment was extremely hostile, heat, smoke, we also had to combat fatigue and long hours of boredom. The test was our ability to maintain our performance throughout, not to fall over from dehydration or exhaustion, to keep ourselves and our teammates safe.

But here is where ethics step in. Among our crews were two different attitudes, or approaches to the adverse context. One was promoted by management, and reflects the dominant culture today. It said, make yourselves as comfortable as possible, shield yourself as much as you can. This meant, if you can sit in an air conditioned vehicle on a hot day, then do, get out only when you have to and then get back in quickly.

The other approach was the exact opposite, it was to make ourselves comfortable, not by shielding ourselves, but by adapting, getting used to the heat. So even in our vehicles we left the air conditioning off, we got out whenever we could, we worked at building our ability to perform under extreme conditions.

This second approach was actually more effective, as stepping out of a fridge into the open air on a 46' day is highly stressful to the body, and much more likely to induce heat stress. But my argument is not about its effectiveness, its about ethics, our conception of the good life, about how we want to live, what kind of people we aspire to be. I loved the really hot days, because I got through them fine, I triumphed, it took some work to get there, some discomfort along the way, but the reward came in the sense of achievement, a feeling of inner strength, indestructibility, the POWER to overcome anything the weather could throw at us.

Later in the season, up in the high country, it was the turn of the cold rather than the heat. I remember watching the other guys rug up, four, five, six layers as opposed to my one. Yes, I was uncomfortable up on a mountain with it 1'C and a strong wind, I'm not going to say it was fun, but later on the tour I remember walking to the shower block in our camp one morning, it was 3', there was frost on the ground, I was shirtless, bare skin against the air, and it felt magnificent.

The ethics here are those of the Spartans, they are a warrior mindset. They see adversity as a challenge, an opportunity to build our own capabilities, to test and push our limits, to TRIUMPH.

Whatever we are doing, if we are working on our fitness, in the gym or elsewhere, I invite you to adopt this mindset, and then pursue it at every opportunity. If its cold out, lose a layer, see how long you can stand it, try again tomorrow, lose another layer if you can, or if its hot and sunny, get out in it, see how long you can go without getting burnt, get comfortable with the heat. Prepare for combat, you don't know what is around the corner, be ready anyway.

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