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.
Why is fitness a virtue?
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.
How to improve the virtue of fitness
“[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:
- Diet. Eat food with the range of nutrients your body needs, in a way that your digestive tract can manage. Avoid harmful foods, toxins, or excess. Be aware of any individual peculiarities you have (allergies, food intolerances) and work around them.
- Food handling safety. Develop an understanding of and adhere to good practices of food preparation and storage to avoid microbial contamination. This includes proper sanitation in food preparation, how to cook various types of food sufficiently, and how to store food safely in the short and long term.
- Avoid poison. Don’t smoke, drink little if any alcohol, beware of toxic pollutants, maintain clean air indoors, wear protection if handling toxins or if they’re in your environment. Understand the medications you take and their interactions with each other and with foods.
- Water. Drink enough water, from uncontaminated sources.
- Weight. Watch your weight. Make an effort to lose weight if you’re trending toward obese. Investigate unexplained abrupt weight changes.
- Aerobic exercise. Get some, on the regular.
- Movement. Protect your range of motion and joint health by incorporating range-of-motion and flexibility exercises. Take care not to engage in repetitive motion for excessive amounts of time, or to maintain a single (e.g. seated) posture for excessive durations.
- Sunlight. Get outdoors from time to time. Use good-quality sunscreen and in other ways take care to avoid deleterious effects from solar radiation.
- Sleep. Get sufficient, continuous sleep of good quality.
- Stress. Get yourself out of situations that cause chronic stress, and/or learn good stress reduction techniques.
- Risks. Take preventative steps to mitigate not-uncommon risks: e.g. wear a seat belt while in a car, mitigate tripping hazards around the home, don’t do things with ladders that will wind up on YouTube, etc.
- Travel. Investigate possibly unfamiliar health risks of places you travel to (parasites? venomous animals? predators?).
- Preventative health care. Get your check-ups, have your teeth cleaned, do the blood tests your doctor orders, keep your vaccinations up to date, take time out to get those mammograms, colonoscopies, etc. on schedule.
- Education. Develop some basic understanding of biology, anatomy, physiology, metabolism, and so forth, and the terminology associated with those disciplines, so you have more insight into your health, and the vocabulary you need to describe it to specialists.
- First Aid. Have some understanding of how to deal with uncommon acute issues you might encounter, such as heat stroke or a bleeding wound.
- Infection. Behave sensibly during epidemics or around people with infectious diseases (mask-wearing, hand-washing, condoms, etc.). Use a bed net if you’re in a malaria-prone region.
- Basics. Have a warm and dry place to sleep, clothing sufficient to protect you from the elements, shoes on your feet, a place to wash up.
- Grooming. Wash your hands regularly, bathe from time to time, brush your teeth, floss, trim or clean your nails, treat any superficial infections, abrasions, or cuts you have.
- Friendship. Make sure there is someone in your life you see frequently who you have the sort of relationship with such that they might say something like “you’re looking pale today,” “you’ve lost a lot of weight,” “what’s that thing on the back of your neck?” etc.
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)