Stoicism: Day 22 – Don’t be a meathead

I only have eight ice baths to take for my month of Stoicism. They have not gotten easier or harder after the first week. There are some minor variations in water temperature, but overall I’ve gotten used to them. I know what to expect, and I could probably continue them indefinitely. Though there are probably some physical benefits to the ice bath (apparently it was once used as a treatment for depression). I find it most useful as a reminder to think about Stoic concepts.

The one habit I started up again this month that I will continue indefinitely is weight lifting three times a week in the morning before work.

When I was walking back from the gym today, I thought about Seneca’s letter to Lucilius titled “On brawn and brains.” Seneca did not believe we should spend too much time exercising.

It is indeed foolish, my dear Lucilius, and very unsuitable for a cultivated man, to work hard over developing the muscles and broadening the shoulders and strengthening the lungs. For although your heavy feeding produce good results and your sinews grow solid, you can never be a match, either in strength or in weight, for a first-class bull. 

Not only can you never become as strong as a bull, it detracts from what truly matters, philosophy.

The mind must be exercised both day and night, for it is nourished by moderate labour. and this form of exercise need not be hampered by cold or hot weather, or even by old age. Cultivate that good which improves with the years. 

I first started exercising in 8th grade. My family had just moved to the US from Korea. We were living in a long-term hotel and hadn’t found a place to live yet. As a result, we were eating much more fast food than usual. At 8th grade, I noticed I was getting chubby. So, I decided to start doing pushups and crunches every night. I did somewhere between 50 and a 100 pushups, and I eventually made it up to 2000 crunches. Yea, that’s right, 2000 crunches. It took a long time, but, I got kick ass abs out of my efforts.

In high school, I became even more interested in diet and fitness. I started running and lifting weights. I started reading fitness magazines, which at the time advocated eating 6 times a day, focusing on carbs and protein. I packed a huge lunch box filled with apples, sandwiches, and soup and would eat pieces of my giant meal during my classes, you know, to keep my metabolism going.

In college I was training to be a SEAL, so much of my mental and physical energy was dedicated to working our or thinking about working out.  I got in pretty good shape too. I could do many pushups and pull-ups.

Over the past few years, my weight has fluctuated and my exercise routine has changed. I go through periods of obsession where I’m following various low carb or fasting protocols and check online forums to make sure my progress or lack of progress is normal. I read the “bro science” about the best times to drink protein shakes (apparently before your workout) and the amount of time you can fast before you go into survival mode (72 hours).

It takes a lot of mental energy to focus on these things, and for what? I do it mostly out of vanity. I want to look good for others, which the Stoics would not approve of. Working out beyond the minimum necessary to maintain good health is pure vanity.

Western society makes it really hard not to focus on how physically attractive you are, or rather, they make it easier to see your physical flaws.

This Planet Fitness commercial captures that sentiment really well:


So, instead of paying $200 a month for the latest fad workout (Crossfit, looking at you), we should embrace something more like the NYT 7-minute workout (yes, I know this is a fad too). Instead of fretting about which foods are Paleo-friendly , we should implement the Japanese practice of Hara Hachi Bu, or eating until you are 80% full.

I’ll have to do a better job of minimizing the time I spend on thinking about diet and exercise. Then I can focus on what truly matters, cultivating my virtues.