The Vitruvian Life

Is It Important for a Conservative to Get in Shape?

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Advice for the young conservative in the modern world.

Welcome to the Vitruvian Life, NR’s weekly advice column for young conservatives in the modern world. Send in your questions about living a balanced, virtuous life: mind, body, and soul. Include your name (anonymous or not), and town in an email to Questions might be lightly edited for publication, but they’ll never be made up.

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I don’t think I see what the point is in shoehorning an emphasis on physical fitness into conservative or traditional political philosophy. I doubt anyone disagrees with the basic idea that being in shape is better than not being in shape. But isn’t it a little bit arbitrary to bring some sort of higher meaning to it? (And yes, I’m a bit out of shape, and summer is coming, so maybe I’m open to a tip or two.)

Gabe, Sioux City, Iowa

Let’s talk moral, philosophical, and practical — in that order.

The Judeo-Christian scriptures warn us to avoid gluttony and sloth. Now, I’m no theologian, priest, or professional exegete, so take this with however many grains of salt you choose, but I think it’s plain that, for some things at least, there’s a threshold where an action passes from healthy to foolish to sinful. I’m not going to attempt to draw the line between foolishness and sin, but I think it’s unarguable that the scriptures judge over-eating and under-exercising as reckless and ill-advised. The Book of Proverbs admonishes us, “Hast thou found honey? Eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it.” And St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, asks us in exasperation, “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?”

One could perhaps take the proverb metaphorically, but the point stands: Good things can turn badly for you if abused. And of course St. Paul, in context, was teaching about sexual immorality. But it’s likely that Paul — who regularly referenced athletes and athletic training in his writings — would have agreed that a despoilation of the physical body could extend to more venal actions if taken to an extreme.

Now consider the philosophy of fitness. It’s too glib to opine that “conservatives are strong, and socialists are limp-wristed weaklings.” (Some have tried to make this case empirically, though anyone who spent the ’60s fighting in the jungle in Vietnam knows that Commies can be tough SOBs, too.)

That said, I think conservatives should appreciate the input/output relationship of fitness because it correlates with the real world. Whether we like it or not, we live in a sowing-and-reaping universe. If you sow discipline, prudence, and thriftiness in your financial life, conservatives believe that you will — under free-market conditions — reap prosperity. Likewise, if you sow good diet, planned exercise, and an active lifestyle, you will reap good health and longevity (or at least more longevity than you would have had had you been unfit). Conservatives should, philosophically, embrace no-excuses fitness because we live in a no-excuses world. It’s good practice for the rest of our — as the kids these days say — “lived experience.”

But probably the best reason to be fit is the practical one: A physically fit person has more energy and vitality to live a full and engaging life in the higher spheres — those of the mind and spirit. But let’s not give short shrift to the fact that the fit 25-year-old guy or gal is going to have an easier time getting a date! That’s no joke. Oh yeah, and the 32-year-old dad, like me, who deadlifts is going to have an easier time picking up his squirming 40-pound kid than the guy with the Dad Bod. So, get in shape.

Okay, but how? Well, for 95 percent of us (i.e., everyone who isn’t already an elite athlete or some sort of gym rat), the best thing to do is, first, get stronger. If you’re overweight, first, get stronger. If you’re a skinny twig, first, get stronger. If you’re kind of pudgy or “skinny fat,” first, get stronger. If you’re a pretty decent endurance athlete, say a runner who does a couple of 5Ks and maybe a half-marathon in the summer, it’d probably do you a lot of good to get stronger, too. Male or female, young or old, fit or not or somewhere in between, you probably need to get stronger.

The best way to do that is Wichita Falls, Texas, strength-training coach Mark Rippeotoe’s Starting Strength barbell program. The Rippetoe program is built on an absolute-bedrock fundamental difference between it and what you’re probably doing right now: the difference between exercise and training.

Most people think, “I need to get more exercise” or “I need to work out more often.” So they go to the gym and walk around and do a couple of the machines for 60 minutes, and then they go home. Or maybe they go on a jog around the neighborhood. Or maybe they take a Zumba class. Or maybe they go on a bike ride on Saturday morning. They do this a couple of times, even regularly a few times per week for several months, and then they wonder why they’re not losing weight or getting that beach bod in time for summer.

But see, they’re exercising. You need to train.

Exercise is random, formless, and sort of pointless, even if it is usually enjoyable at some level. Training denotes discipline, planning, and continuous improvement. Training is goal-oriented, systematic, and much, much more effective at getting you where you want to go because you first get to decide where your destination is.

Starting Strength is a systematic training program built for novices. It’s progressive (i.e., it increases in intensity as you get stronger) and scalable (i.e., almost anyone can start from exactly the fitness and strength level they’re in right now). All it takes is a barbell, some weights, and three 90-minute sessions per week. (Your local YMCA probably has everything you need.) For about three or four months, all you’ll do is Squat, Deadlift, Press, and Bench Press. You’ll come out the other end much, much stronger and ready to take on almost any other athletic activity in life. Or — if that’s all you’re going for — you’ll be in position to avoid throwing out your back when you pick up one of the kiddoes.

If you want to know a lot more, read Rippetoe’s book Starting Strength. I couldn’t recommend it more.

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So, why “The Vitruvian Life”? I assume that’s a reference to Da Vinci.

Derek, Grand Rapids, Mich.

The standard take on Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man” is that it’s a study of the ideal proportionality of Man. There’s math involved, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Yes, yes, for the purposes of this column — we should aim to attain balance in body, mind, and spirit. And we’ll get to all that as we go along these next few months.

But did you know that Leonardo was also hiding a map to the subterranean secrets of the Great Pyramid of Giza in his simple pen-and-ink drawing? And that this somehow intersects with the geometric coding “hidden on the cover of Shakespeare’s Sonnets”? Or that the 14 phases of the waxing and waning moon are key to unlocking “a blueprint of man’s unfolding spiritual journey through the sacred energy centers of the spine known as the Chakras”? Well, neither did I.

I’m going to use that as a weird segue to tell you a mostly unrelated story. I got my first credit card in college, right around the time that you could first customize your plastic with a variety of stock images: sailboats tacking into the wind, a golden retriever, a cat next to some sort of flower, Kobe draining a three, etc. One of the options available to me was Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man.”

Now, I didn’t know much back then about Leonardo da Vinci, artistic trends in the 15th century, or anything about Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, the Roman architect who came up with the idea that all buildings should embody firmitas, utilitas, and venustas (i.e., “strength,” “utility,” and “beauty”). I just liked the drawing. And college-aged Mark thought it stood as a cool symbol for his efforts to turn himself into some sort of Renaissance Man.

One day, in my intemperate youth, I went out with my buddy, Ace. We were holed up at our favorite pub, and 21-year-old me really wanted to score the number of the extremely cute girl behind the bar. I opened a tab and tried to strike up a conversation by making a charming comment about her embroidered brooch and the jeweled, decorative hairpin that she was wearing. But she was busy, and the lines didn’t land, and the night was growing late, so after a while we decided we needed to make the walk to Whataburger — leaving our tab open and credit cards behind.

The next morning, at Ace’s apartment, we quickly realized what had happened and called up the pub to see if they still had them. No other than the aforementioned extremely cute bartender answered the phone. My Vitruvian Man Visa stood out — and impressed! — among the detritus and riffraff of puppy and kitty Discover cards and sailboat AMEXs.

Unfortunately, even the Vitruvian Man didn’t get me that date — but it should have.

Also, sometimes you just have to name a column.

Remember to submit your own question about living the Vitruvian Life to See you next week.


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