Keeping track of our personal affairs often seems to be like maintaining a great dam with walls that must frequently be patched and tended to. How many people do you know who are at an impasse in their lives? How many relationships teeter on the precipice of oblivion? How many individuals are trapped in careers that no longer suit who they have become? How many are in perpetual flirtation with financial ruin? How many are aging, wishing they would have done something else with their lives? Life is suffering. We’re all being crushed in some way or another. Find one way out and you’ll find a new way in. You learn to cope with it if you learn anything at all.
In an effort to endure, I’ve taken solace in music, art, literature, film, history, philosophy, and yes, even other human beings. The brainier and wittier the better. Nothing relieves the pains of life like the joys of the intellect and the comfort of humor. However, just as important and far more overlooked is the importance of physical exercise. Working out changed my life. It allowed me to see myself and the world in a different light. I made it a priority and incorporated it into my lifestyle. Eventually, I made extolling its virtues part of my profession when I became a personal trainer.
I’m sitting here writing this right now because I’m reflecting on some events in my life. This month marks sixteen years since I entered Air Force basic training. Air Force training isn’t incredibly difficult for most recruits, especially compared to Marine boot camp or pretty much any other service’s basic training. However, I can’t say it was a particularly pleasant experience. Before I joined up, I hadn’t worked out much. I spent my high school years playing in bands, smoking weed, drinking and trying to get laid. I avoided any kind of exercise I could and saw gym class as an opportunity to sneak out and drink stolen whiskey in my truck.
When I got out of high school, I was a broke kid with bad grades, a bad temper and no future. I joined the military because I had nowhere else to go. I wasn’t patriotic. I didn’t care about my country. I needed a job and a place to live. I was smart enough to join the easiest branch I could find and my saving grace was that they let me in. I didn’t want to blow it and the pressure was on. When I got to basic training I had never run a mile, I couldn’t do a pull-up, and I could hardly bust out a few sloppy sit-ups and push-ups. The next few weeks would become some of the biggest lessons in humility and growth I’d ever had in my life up to that point. The initial embarrassment washed away as it became a struggle to keep up, which I was able to do, though only barely.
As the weeks went on, something inside me changed. I took a look at the food in the chow hall and went vegan right then and there. I embraced exercise. I felt myself getting good at it. It was a welcome escape from the stress of everything else that goes on with basic training. Right as I was beginning to enjoy my stay there, I graduated and was off to tech school and then to my first duty station.
It was a desolate base in Central California. There was nothing around for miles in any direction. The heat was oppressive and nearly year-round. I had no car, no money, no girlfriend, no friends. The barracks I stayed at were nice—essentially a studio apartment. Still, I got lonesome and depressed. I found myself getting homesick most nights and I drank a lot. I tried hard to pull myself out of it. I bought a bunch of recording equipment and set up a home studio in my room. I wound up drinking and recording music every night. It was fun and I had a creative outlet, but I could feel my body and mind turning into mush.
Up the street from me was a library and a gym. I didn’t want to mess with the gym. I never felt a part of the military culture. A military gym is not really the place to hang out if you don’t enjoy military culture. I spent a lot of time at the library instead. In an attempt to better myself, I always went right for the big challenging books. After all these years, I’m still discovering these writers. Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel called out to me on the shelf. It infuriated me and then I fell in love with it. I plowed through Shakespeare, read a little Dubliners, got really into Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, struggled through Faulkner and Henry Miller, tried to keep awake though Tolstoy and found the real master in Dostoyevsky. From him, I gained an interest in philosophy and went on to Plato. It was through Plato that I became convinced that I needed to get myself in the gym.
I bit the bullet, got over myself and began working out in the military gym. I learned to do what so many of us do at the gym—block everything out that is going down all around you. As the months went by and I saw real muscle growth on my body for the first time, I was hooked. When I finally got a car, I got a membership at a health club off base and I finally felt at home somewhere. I knew then that this was something I would be doing for the rest of my life. It changed my entire outlook on life.
Plato himself had been an athlete–a competitive wrestler, a believer in cultivating the body as well as the mind. I took note not make working out so much a part of my life that my intellectual side grew too feeble. I also made sure not to let intellectual life take over to the point where I grew out of shape and doughy. I picked that up directly from Plato.
Both the pursuit of a meaningful intellectual life and a physically sound body are hard-won. It is easy to sit down and marathon a TV series and eat junk. I’ve done that. We can sit and laugh and joke about marathoning a series on Netflix with a box of cookies and a pizza, but it’s a disease taking over. It’s okay if you can pull it off as a once-in-a-while bonding session with a friend or a partner, but when it’s just you there, trying to blur out the day and mask your thoughts, providing fast and easy comfort day after day—it’s not funny anymore. The mind stagnates, the body softens and you slowly die.
Real comfort is in the controlled discomfort of the weight room, the running track and the open field. It’s here where the real work is done. It’s here where the breakthroughs happen. The weights don’t care if the girl or guy left you, they don’t care about your job, they don’t care who you think you are or who you know. They have no time for your hang-ups. They only ask that you approach them with respect. The weights are like a gun, a pit bull, or a bottle of whiskey. They can do great things, but they demand your respect and caution, because they can bring you hell if you don’t. Torn shoulders, busted up backs and postural distortions are all the work of weights not treated with respect.
They demand proper form and for you to know your limit with them, but they also beg you to push yourself—to feel as though you are lifting a house or a truck. When they’re done with you, they may leave you feeling like a wreck. But if you don’t quit, if you keep coming back for more, if you learn how to treat them right, they will give you so much in return. They will teach you to listen to your body, to know when enough is enough and when you can push just a little bit more. They may deflate your ego a bit and you should let them. It’ll be worth it in the long run. Just respect the weights, listen to your body and keep showing up.
I learned more about myself in the weight rooms than I have from any book, and I say that as a great lover of books. I learned about the world and other people from books. You’re reading other people’s thoughts when you’re reading other people’s books. That’s important and has a deep value. But my time hitting the weights and hitting the track and bending my body in all kinds of ways taught me about myself. Sitting in contemplation between sets gave my mind a clarity I’d never had before. Learning and growing from the weights gave me confidence I’d never experienced. I continue to be taught daily that I’m stronger than I thought, that I’m capable of pulling off more than I knew, and to listen to my body. It’s a good body, after all, and pushing it too far is just self-abuse.
Lifting has become such a personal thing for me that I prefer to workout alone and in peace. I have a gym membership, but I only use it for the days when I’m doing big heavy lifts. Other than that, I’ll lift dumbbells at home or swing kettlebells and fling battle ropes outside. Taking exercise in the open air, at sunrise, clears my mind and sets me off in a thoughtful and contemplative mood all day. I also like to run at dusk and watch the sun go down beyond the horizon while I rock out to the music playing in my headphones. It helps to give me a sense of accomplishment. Even if I didn’t get any writing done that day, I still had that and often, that’s enough.
It goes without saying that I’m with Plato here, physical fitness and intellectual fitness hang in a delicate balance with one another. One shouldn’t take too much of a priority over the other. The cultivation of both should be the bedrock of any capable individual living in a civilized society. I believe that our devaluation of the life of the mind and the trivial blanket we throw over exercising the body has helped greatly to get us to where we are now politically. The ship may in fact be going down, but don’t let that break you. Use that great mind of yours, make use of those great muscles. They will keep you sane. They will keep you together. They will give you back the more and more you put in. They only ask that you use them. So get up and get out there.