Logan Strohl on exercise norms

by Rob Bensinger2 min read30th Mar 202130 comments

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Guilt & ShameExercise (Physical)Tsuyoku Naritai
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(cw: exercise, shame)

(also relevant: Shame Processing)

Logan Strohl said some things about exercise (and shame, and aspiring to be better) on Facebook today that I found interesting. Minus some mostly-irrelevant parts:

[...] I definitely wasn't trying to kick people who struggle with exercise while they're down.

But I guess when I make this claim about exercise out loud, I am trying to do something sort of similar to that, which is kind of the opposite of saying, "oh don't worry, exercise doesn't matter anyway". Exercise does matter.

[...]

Being difficult is part of the very nature of exercise; you don't get physically stronger or gain physical endurance unless you work hard enough to be uncomfortable, and you don't improve meaningfully in these ways unless you are uncomfortable over and over again frequently and consistently. So I think sentiments like "it doesn't really matter, only do it if it's easy and you like it" (which rarely pop up in those words but I think are nevertheless subtly pervasive in nerdier subcultures) are especially detrimental to exercise in particular. And that's why I do sometimes bother to promote exercise explicitly.

[...]

I mostly don't think people should be shamed for things, including not exercising. I think shame is a beautiful and powerful psychological process that probably ought to be treated as personal and intimate, much like recountings of first lovemakings. Trying to use it as a public tool to make people act how you want them to seems to break it.

What I think is that there are much, much better reactions to recognizing the goodness of something than shutting down and feeling bad about yourself for not instantiating the good thing. Such as, for example, re-considering whether you are allocating your resources correctly. I suspect that one of the reasons people tend to reject "X is better than Y" style claims is because they aren't quite aware that there is a difference between "someone thinks I'm worse than I could be" and "someone is trying to make me feel bad". Which seems like a great big dumb obstacle to people getting better.

I suspect that part of what's going on here in our differing perceptions is... two things.

1. in general, nerds struggle more with exercise than non-nerds, nerds get bullied by non-nerds as kids (largely for struggling more with exercise), and then as adults nerds form sub-cultures where they're more protected from the things that hurt them growing up.

2. if you're an athlete, it's pretty uncomfortable being in those adult nerd sub-cultures. the sub-cultures have developed strong immune systems against athletics, and athletes are not very welcome.

so i find myself, an athletic nerd, right in the middle of this anti-jock immune system, and sometimes i just wanna shout "look i get that you were hurt but can we please do this less self-deceptively and without deriding athletes???"

like for example i have a friend who does this jovial self-deprecating thing where he talks about my "dexterity privilege" whenever i do something that involves coordination or strength, or when he tries to do something like that and doesn't succeed much. it's mostly innocuous, it mostly doesn't bother me.

but it's also at least a little annoying and frustrating. because yeah, i almost certainly do have a genetic predisposition to be coordinated and so forth; but also, i started gymnastics training when i was in preschool, and every single year since then i've practiced some combination of gymnastics, soccer, dance, yoga, martial arts, running, weight lifting, swimming, cycling, hiking, and a smattering of more niche activities that require and develop physical skill. it's not like i just woke one morning able to do backflips. i did not roll a natural twenty on "core stability". i've worked hard for it my entire life, and that's important to me.

this one little thing my friend says is really not a big deal, but i do think the mindset it comes from probably is kind of a big deal, when that mindset is shared by an entire community. and i think something like that is true of my community.

Duncan Sabien adds a description of Logan's view (which Logan endorses):

[...] "Look, people who don't exercise may be amazing in many ways, but they're also just strictly worse on the exercise-axis, and possibly on related health or willpower or self-control axes, and we shouldn't NOT-notice that specific badness even if we want to make sure we contextualize it along with all the other possible goodnesses." [...]

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Lots of people work for their privileges!  I practiced writing for a LONG time - and remain continuously aware that other people cannot be expected to express their ideas clearly, even assuming their ideas to be clear, because I have Writing Privilege and they do not.  Does my Writing Privilege have an innate component?  Of course it does; my birth lottery placed me in a highly literate household full of actually good books, which combined with genuine genetic talent got me a 670 Verbal score on the pre-restandardized SAT at age eleven; but most teens with 670V SAT scores can't express themselves at all clearly, and it was a long long time and a lot of practice before I started being able to express myself clearly ever even on special occasions.  It remains a case of Privilege, and would be such even if I'd obtained it entirely by hard work starting from an IQ of exactly 100, not that this is possible, but if it were possible it would still be Privilege.  People who study hard, work hard, compound their luck, and save up a lot of money, end up with Financial Privilege, and should keep that in mind before expecting less financially privileged friends to come with them on a non-expenses-paid fun friendly trip.  We are all locally-Privileged in one aspect or another, even that kid at the center of Omelas, and all we can do is keep it in mind.

"You'll feel so much better" and "it's healthy" were the main reasons I was told to start exercising. I guess that's true, but after lifting for 7 years consistently, the main thing I noticed that no one told me was "you'll gain this superpower of every social interaction being a bit tilted more in your favor". Getting a good haircut for the first time ever probably helped too. The difference in how I'm listened to and treated is clear - people are much more interested in what I have to say.

(Off topic, but I wish there was something like an aesthetician shop, focused empirically on appearing as good as possible. They could give you a haircut, recommend you clothes, do your eyebrows, etc. I think these exist but my guess is that the real thing is in a walled garden, i.e. you have to be somebody. I'd love this because I don't really care how I look personally - I'd want someone to figure that out for me)

Maybe I'm missing something but your wish can be fulfilled by hiring those different specialists separately (which is likely to be better than a bundle anyway).

Yes. But I'm not sure that I have the expertise to recognize the expertise of all of the different specialists. I need to tap into some network that has already credibly sorted the experts. The expertise of the package deal may be more legible?

Not sure, sounds like you'd still have to recognize the expertise in this package, or of a package-creator. There are benefits, what I was saying is you don't have to wait for it.

I think "nerds" need to be taught exercise differently: not by pushing them to compete with others right away, but by lots and lots of patience, repetition, and focus on basics. At some point it will click and they'll be able to compete and have fun. Same as with "non-nerds" and math, really.

Things I would tell to nerds:

People often talk about how you should do sport, which implies group activity, usually not with the kind of people you prefer to spend your free time with. Forget that. Healthy activities can also be done alone. You don't even need gym for strength training. Exercise can be a perfectly introverted activity, if you wish so.

Exercise gives you more energy. It's your choice how to spend that energy, but even reading a book or writing code is better when you don't feel tired. To get benefits from exercise, you don't need to exercise more (or even as much) as someone else. You just need to exercise, full stop.

At the beginning, it works almost like an RPG: you get experience points, your strength increases. If you exercise every day, the improvement after one month will be visible; if you keep written records, you get feedback even sooner. That is an amazing experience. The good news for you is that beginners have the greatest gains per unit of effort.

As a nerd, you will probably spend a lot of time in your life sitting. Sitting is an incredibly harmful thing for your body. Do whatever you can to reduce it, because after a few decades it will result in pain. Buy a standing desk, take breaks during work or study, take walks in your free time. Hey, you can have intellectual conversations while walking, as long as the other person is also willing to take a walk.

Halo effect is a thing. Looking more fit (other things being equal) will make other people believe you are also smarter and more competent. Don't philosophize about it. Yes, humans are stupid. Now that you know the cheat code, use it.

Regular exercise doesn't have to cost you lot of time. You can do strength exercise while watching a movie: pause, do dozen repetitions, unpause, etc. While you are taking a walk, you are free to think about whatever you want; you may plan your activities for the rest of the day, or think about a math problem.

"Only do it if it's easy and you like it" doesn't seem as obviously wrong to me as it's supposed to sound. During the 6 years of my life when I had dance practice ~twice a week I never just decided I didn't want to show up, because I really liked going! In performances I would get this high where I wanted to just do every song straight through for the full hour (or however long), even though I always scheduled in rests for each person – and a lot of other people had this experience as well. Similarly, when I run on an elliptical I get to a point where I feel like I never want to stop. I push myself but I don't experience it as 'uncomfortable' subjectively – I might get sweaty and out of breath and be sore the next day, but I like that. The sweaty out of breath feeling is an exhilarating glow, and the soreness feels rewarding and kinda nice.

tl;dr exercise genuinely doesn't have to be unpleasant??

Side note, my dance group was entirely made up of nerds. And in general I don't resonate with the nerd/jock dichotomy, like, at all. Though based on my sister's experience (in competitive tae kwon do) that may have to do with competitive vs non-competitive forms of exercise.

Yeah, this seems like an important point. For me the difference between jogging and badminton is like night and day. Asking me whether I like "exercise" would be like asking me if I like "food".

In general, I think most people should put a lot more resources into shopping around for enjoyable exercise. I got really lucky that my friend talked me into taking a badminton class with him in high school; if not for that, I might conceive of myself as "not a cardio person".

 All that being said, I still do force myself to jog when my preferred cardio alternatives are unavailable.

I agree with shopping around. It took me a couple of decades of bouncing off of long distance running until I found a jiujitsu dojo full of engineers. All of a sudden, "exercise" was fun.

I think the main flaw in his argument comes from his belief that more exercise always = better health / increased longevity.

The evidence on the other hand indicates that health benefits come from a very modest amount of exercise. Daily waking plus maybe a short session of resistance training once a week.

As you start to increase volume and intensity, health and longevity benefits not only tail off, but can actually start to decline. (Especially if you're doing flic flacs and land on your head).

I personally enjoy strenuous physical activity, and being strong and athletic. I therefore do more than the minimum required for health.

If people choose not to exercise though, who's to say that's not the right choice for them? Doing something you hate on a daily basis your entire life in order to make it longer might not be the most rational choice.

There's a belief that "stick at it and you'll learn to live it, I did and so do all my gym buddies". This overlooks the possibility of survivorship bias though.

This struck me as well.

gymnastics, soccer, dance, yoga, martial arts, running, weight lifting, swimming, cycling, hiking

Part of my brain reads this list as "Broken bones, busted knees, torn ankle ligaments, burst spinal and knee cushions." I can associate many of my forays into fitness with a particular chronic injury. Basketball, ankle doesn't work right anymore. Taekwondo, toes on right foot no longer support my weight.

I'm sure there are plenty of people who don't accrue all these injuries when they exercise. A cursory Googling suggests that there are some important genetic factors relating to connective tissue strength/integrity and/or recovery speed.

As I've gotten older, I've chosen to simply focus on keeping my resting heart rate solidly into what is considered a healthy zone. This is one of those easily measurable knobs that can be intervened upon from a number of directions. If somebody suggested that I need to pack on muscle to be healthier, I think I could argue pretty persuasively that they are wrong.

Every year for the past 4 I have started a new, less ambitious exercise routine. I have stopped each because I got out of the habit after 3-6 months. I got out of the habit because I injured myself exercising and spent some weeks recovering. I'm not claiming this is inevitable or that I'm doing everything right and injuring myself regardless, but I am claiming that it's not as simple (for some people?) as "once you get past your nerd-distaste, if you're okay with doing uncomfortable things, it's smooth sailing".

Years ago, when I was buying life insurance, one of the questions was whether I do regular/professional sport (sorry, I forgot the exact words). So afterwards I asked whether doing such sport would be good or bad, from the perspective of insurance. The agent told me that it increases the cost of insurance. I don't remember exactly whether it literally implied shorter expected lifespan, or just more likely permanent accidents, which were also covered by that specific insurance.

That was the first time in my life when I heard something negative about sport from the perspective of health.

The second (and the last) time, when I discussed with a doctor what kind of sport would be best (efficient, but also safe) if I want to lose some weight. The doctor was like: "well, you could do this... but that can damage your joints, so perhaps you should rather do this... wait, that can also damage your joints, so perhaps..." and the final conclusion was that the only sport that does not damage joints is swimming. Now of course, for an overweight person, the strain on joints is greater, but the risk exists for everyone.

On the other hand, in health, trade-offs seem quite common; few things are unambiguously good. For example, my dentist, after checking my teeth, asked me whether I grit my teeth a lot. When I said no, she was like: "well, this is weird... unless you perhaps eat a lot of fresh vegetables". I said of course I do, that is the healthy thing to do, aren 't we all supposed to do that? Apparently, it's not optimal for your teeth. (And apparently less frequent than gritting one's teeth... which is a scary thought.)

I personally like to distinguish between activity, training and exercise.

Exercise being movement done purely for health. It should be safe and effective.

Activity is movement done for another reason. Could be practical (cycling to work), or recreational (playing sport). Typically has similar effects to exercise, but comes with injury risks.

Training is practicing specific movements to get better at a certain activity.

People tend to confuse all of these, unsurprisingly, and end up doing things like crossfit "because exercise is good for you"...

People also tend to have strong beliefs about which is "best". Really it's a matter of personal preference/values.

Logan prefers the pronoun "they" over "he", FYI.

Ah sorry. There was no reference to that in this post so had no idea.

This is probably not a meta enough comment, but I have been using kettlebells since the pandemic and I think they are the highest ROI form of exercise I have ever tried. I do 5 minutes of kettlebell swings with a 60 pound bell 3 times a day: before work, on my lunch break, and after work. My strength has significantly increased and it feels like a good cardio workout too.

My big problem with exercise is not the discomfort but the monotony. Swings are much more exhausting than most exercises and are also a hybrid of lifting and cardio, making them very efficient.

Non-meta is good!

I agree being further on the exercise-axis makes one better. If I had to put it on a character sheet I wouldn't find "Strength/Dexterity privilege" bad names. Of course its description is going to come out to "When you consider whether to do exercise/gymnastics, you are more likely to actually decide in favor.". I would say the same for Intelligence and math. (And there are genetic factors to both, and they will be more pronounced when observing each tail.)

Do you think calling one's decision processes privileged indicates and promotes akrasia, as in a learned helplessness, a learned disassociation from one's decision processes? As in, your parts that System 2 controls learn that decision power/willpower/vote "allocated" to the issue is wasted, and thus stop doing it, locking in the situation?

For what it's worth, to me "strength/dexterity privilege" sounds like a stat that makes you more successful at picking up heavy things or moving in a tricky manner. Similarly to how I imagine the "intelligence" stat makes you better at figuring out the solutions to problems, rather than more likely to take a nootropic when considering whether or not to do so.

Worth adding that the ability to work hard and delay gratification is a privilege, Self-control seems to be 60%[1] heritable (and let's not forget that people also don't choose in which environment they grow up which probably accounts for the other 40%)

In a way, it's privilege all the way down.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763418307905

Not germane to the subject at hand, but this stuck out to me:

I think shame is a beautiful and powerful psychological process that probably ought to be treated as personal and intimate, much like recountings of first lovemakings. Trying to use it as a public tool to make people act how you want them to seems to break it.

This flies directly in the face of the historical record. Until modernity began, shame was explicitly and strategically a public tool almost everywhere.

That being said, I am pretty sure this is a case of using shame and guilt as synonyms. I am stricken again and confused again by the difference between public and community; shame strongly requires community mechanisms to work, whereas guilt is supposed to work completely independently of it (as an emotion, at least). Neither mechanism would work based on the words of internet strangers, which seems to be the dominant implication of the word "public" now.

This flies directly in the face of the historical record. Until modernity began, shame was explicitly and strategically a public tool almost everywhere.

I don't think you understood what Logan was saying. Maybe you took "break it" to mean "cause it to have no effect", where Logan meant something like "cause it to have bad effects that don't capture the valuable things about shame".

Oh, the meaning wasn't ambiguous; I understood that exactly to be what Logan meant. What I am saying is that this is completely different from how shame (in the past) has been publicly understood. Shame doesn't have any valuable effects without anyone else knowing; it is dependent on relationships to have value, and mostly concerns the obligations to other people that come with them.

But it does make complete sense to me if shame is being used as a synonym for guilt, which is the norm in the US and especially on the internet.

To elaborate on my claim a bit: I say shame and guilt are different emotions.

  • Guilt is the feeling we have when we do something morally bad, or fail to do something morally good. If we consider that lying is morally bad, and following from the OP that exercise is morally good, then if I lie or fail to exercise I should feel guilty. This is true regardless of what anyone else knows or says.
  • Shame is the feeling of letting people down. It is about reputation and the obligations we have to our people (by which I mean family, friends and community). Shame is what I would feel if I were to be caught in that lie, or if someone I cared about knew I told it. Guilt and shame aren't mutually exclusive: suppose I were a member of a running club, and decided to skip one day and do something else instead - but we see each other as they run by and I am sitting having a beer. Now I feel guilty and ashamed at the same time for the same event: guilt for skipping the run, shame for disappointing my club.

I propose a test: reflect on the last time you did something you felt bad about; then imagine someone important to you, who values things like you do, learning about it. This probably feels worse overall. The question is whether it is the same bad feeling only more intense, or if it is a different bad feeling. If it's a different bad feeling when someone else knows, then I think there is value in distinguishing between guilt and shame.

None of this makes Logan's statement bad or wrong; I quite agree with the intended meaning. I only commented because that particular reason highlighted in that particular circumstance threw into sharp relief this difference between guilt and shame, which is otherwise an idiosyncratic interest of mine.

I'd be interested to hear a steelman of 'social shame', which I think is something you're gesturing at — that, regardless of what Logan's talking about, a utopian society would make important use of 'social shame' to make things go well. (Perhaps that's not your point, but it's at least a thing I'm curious about!)

I'd need more evidence/arguments in order to be persuaded of any of these claims:

  • History, there's been no such thing as private 'shame'.
  • Private 'shame' is synonymous with 'guilt'. (I think these are close together in concept space, but I strongly guess you're missing important shades of meaning if you're rounding off Logan's topic to 'guilt'. See also In Defense of Shame.)

In general, I think you should ask more initial questions and make fewer assumptions about what's in Logan's head. E.g., you're assuming a very moralistic perspective on Logan's part (that they're really talking about guilt, which is really about "when we do something morally bad, or fail to do something morally good"), but Logan is a very aesthetics-oriented, very anti-morality sort of thinker.

Welp, I've clearly botched this, for which I apologize. To start with, I never meant to make any assumptions about what Logan was thinking, but I can clearly see where that was what I communicated despite myself. This was an unforced error on my part.

I can't get the In Defense of Shame post, because I don't have facebook, but I'd be keen to read - do you know if it was reposted anywhere else? I was unable to locate it at Agenty Duck or here. However, if it is about the book In Defense of Shame, then I was talking about the first of the two dogmas mentioned (which they reject).

What I meant to be talking about was the language drift between the past and present, though I now see Logan wasn't using any more of a standard use of shame than I was. From the Shame Processing link, I see this:

According to me, shame is for keeping your actions in line with what you care about. It happens when you feel motivated to do something that you believe might damage what is valuable (whether or not you actually do the thing).

Shame indicates a particular kind of internal conflict. There's something in favor of the motivation, and something else against it. Both parts are fighting for things that matter to you.

This is very interesting: on the one hand, it is closer to what I mean by guilt than what I mean by shame; on the other hand, it's about reconciling competing priorities, which is supposed to be one of shame's attributes over guilt.

I'm sad about the lack of a social element, but I was sad about that beforehand.

Regarding social and private shame: I think I agree that a utopian society would make use of social shame, but there's a bunch of conditions attached to enable that good use which we now lack. That being said, I'll consider the problem; I have an ongoing related reading list that should let me come to grips with the idea better.

Saying private shame is interesting; even in the sense that I was using shame, I'm not sure I'd oppose a notion of private shame. It's really the suggestion of exclusively-private shame, or anti-social shame, with which I would quibble.

I think Logan's Defense of Shame was mostly unrelated to the the book, FYI. (Or at least, it's a FB comment that's basically them just saying "I think Shame is a valuable part of you, here's why, and here's how." It might overlap with the book but I'm guessing Logan's take is fairly different). 

I strongly agree with the claim, even if we differ on the motivations. I cultivate a sense of shame myself.

Come to think of it, I also deploy my sense of shame with respect to exercise. Following on Rob's questions, it could probably be considered private.