This post examines the virtue of fitness. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.
This is a good time to restate what is meant by a virtue, in the classic, Aristotelian sense: A virtue is a person’s characteristic habit that tends to promote or exhibit that person’s human flourishing.
Flourishing is affected by lots of other things, including the actions of other people and the luck of the draw. But as far as characteristic habits go, those that have a typical tendency of promoting one’s human flourishing are the virtues; those that typically degrade one’s human flourishing are vices.
To the extent that you are sick, debilitated, or disabled, your human flourishing is that much less. This does not in itself say anything about your moral worth or virtuousness: being sick, debilitated, or disabled is not in itself blameworthy.
But, if you have characteristic habits that have a tendency to make you sick, debilitated, or disabled, those characteristic habits may be vices (assuming they don’t have offsetting benefits in terms of human flourishing) and you would be wise to replace them with corresponding virtues: characteristic habits that promote wellness, strength, and capability.
Fitness as a virtue is not so much measured by how healthy you are so much as how healthy your habits are. Your health may be in large part a matter of what cards you were dealt, but you can play those cards well or poorly, and that’s where the virtue of fitness comes in.
Some closely-related or synonymous names for this virtue are strength, vigor, hardiness, vitality, health, fettle, shape, well-being, and robustness.
In the context of endurance, fitness goes by names like resilience, grit, toughness, and fortitude.
When fitness is reflected in action, it may be called energy, liveliness, or tirelessness.
Fitness comes to the aid of other virtues by giving you more strength, energy, and capacity to carry them out, while distracting you less with aches & pains & worries. It helps the intellectual virtues by keeping the mind sharp. As has become especially apparent during the CoViD epidemic, fitness also comes into play in the social virtues: the healthier you are, the less likely you are to directly be a burden to others or to the health care system, and wise health practices make it less likely that you will contribute to the infection of others. Fitness is, in ways like this, considerate.
“[N]o pains, expense, self-denial, or restraint, to which we subject ourselves, for the sake of health, is too much. Whether it require us to relinquish lucrative situations, to abstain from favorite indulgences, to control intemperate passions, or undergo tedious regimens; whatever difficulties it lays us under, a man who pursues his happiness rationally and resolutely, will be content to submit to.” ―William Paley
When we abruptly suffer through illness or accident, we remember the value of health and we would do a lot to get it back. But we’re less likely to apply this same calculus to efforts to build, preserve, and maintain health when we’re already doing okay, or when we’ve been declining more gradually.
This is a shame, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s often easier to avoid falling into a hole than to dig yourself out once you’ve fallen in. If you’re healthy-ish already, it’s not all that difficult to incorporate healthy exercise, good sleep, attention to diet, and so forth into your lifestyle. If you’re unhealthy, all of those things can be more of an uphill climb: you’re not firing on all cylinders, so everything takes more effort.
It can be surprisingly difficult to get good advice about fitness. There are lots of exercise, diet, and supplement fads out there, for example, and if you judge them based on how confidently their promoters tout them, they’ll all sound essential. You would probably be wise to focus first on things for which there is broad expert consensus about how valuable they are for the typical person. When it comes to the more controversial specifics, tread carefully and skeptically.
Without going too deep into specifics, the following are some of the categories of ways in which you can develop healthy habits of the sort that compose the virtue of fitness:
I encourage you to contribute more-specific advice, if there is any you feel you can vouch for, in the comments.
William Paley, “Human Happiness” The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785)
I'll start ;-)
The best exercise program is one you actually do. Darebee is a site that has a bunch of exercise programs that you can do at home (no special equipment needed). It's free, and ad-free (donation-supported). It's useful particularly for those of us working from home who have good pandemic-related reasons to stay away from the gym.
I just made an account so I can tell you how much I enjoy darebee. I saw your comment about a month ago and have been exercising every day since then, and am thoroughly enjoying it, every day. Thanks so much for the recommendation
As someone who loves going to the gym every day, I can tell you that the workouts you pointed to are very inefficient and unenjoyable. I know the gym isn't an option for a lot of people but I strongly recommend investing in a pair of adjustable dumbbells and a bench. I assure you the $200-$300 you invest will be well worth it and the sunk cost will probably motivate you to keep lifting. I know it's uncouth to be prescriptive with fitness but I strongly encourage you to start progressive overload training with a PPL split.