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On Lifting, Running, and the Life of the Mind

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Last weekend, my friend Micah Meadowcroft wrote for The American Conservative (of which he is managing editor) on the virtues of lifting weights. He described getting jacked as essential for those who might otherwise lose themselves in the life of the mind. In certain respects, I agree with the basics of his position. In others, however, I would gently and politely dissent.

Lifting — which I sometimes do — is far from the only way to stay “sane” and “grounded,” and to remind your brain that it is part of a body. Many physical activities can achieve this. My preferred pursuit is distance running, which I have done, to varying degrees of intensity, for most of my life. (I will leave it to others to tease out the implications of a TAC employee preferring an activity that involves staying in one place, while a National Review employee prefers one that involves roaming widely.) It has been an essential part of my life in the age of lockdowns, when so much is restricted, when days otherwise might bleed together, to be able to step outside and run as far as I wish, creating a unique daily adventure around which I can impose a structure in an often-formless time. And to Meadowcroft’s invocation of classical allusions in favor of lifting, I submit my own for running: that both Achilles and Hector had sufficient endurance for the former to chase the latter thrice around the walls of Troy; and that without Pheidippides’ distance-running prowess, news of the victory of Athens over Persia at Marathon would not have reached other Greeks. Sure, he didn’t survive, but maybe he should have done more tempos.

People often say runners are crazy. Well, we are — sort of. But I think I would have become actually crazy without running as an option during the past year or so. Running has an additional advantage, highlighted by Meadowcroft’s reference to the status of gyms: It does not usually depend on the availability of external facilities. I’ve run outside in temperatures ranging from 10 below to 110 degrees; up mountains, through forests, along beaches, trespassing on private property (by accident; I don’t recommend it). All you need, really, is a pair of shoes; some might say not even that. Meadowcroft never explicitly vaunts lifting weights over other forms of physical activity, but it’s a reasonable inference from his argument that he thinks it is superior. But the important thing, I think, is to do something, really anything, other than endless Netflix and scrolling interrupted by Postmates deliveries.

And on this, we largely agree. Meadowcroft has harsh words for some of his peers:

The D.C. conservative scene is a veritable cornucopia of pear-shaped men. Here are the supposed intellectual elite of the American right — men who know their C.S. Lewis and are, ostensibly, fighting the abolition of men and manliness — without chests to speak of.

There is indeed a worrying tendency on the right to glory in poor health. Some of it emerges in reaction to the impositions of nanny-staters, who seek to nudge us into their chosen template for healthiness, supposedly for our own good but likely more so because they enjoy bossing others around. The subculture of conservative cigarette smokers who believe their habit to be ideological and virtuous is a particularly good example of this reaction, as I explained here. Meadowcroft and I both condemn the corpulence of G. K. Chesterton, a venerable conservative but not exactly a fitness role model; Meadowcroft claims once to have once embraced but since rejected the “Chestertonian” path of “dignified girth.” He would likely agree with me that “unhealthiness to own the libs” is a self-defeating posture that also defies the essential conservative traits of self-discipline and personal responsibility — or, as he puts it, “the discipline of mind and body, the pursuit of excellence, the virtue of self-mastery.” The best response to health-based nanny-staters is to prove that they are not needed.

I do wonder, however, if Meadowcroft either might be exaggerating his case, or should consider how others might interpret his remarks, whatever his intention. D.C. actually tends to place fairly highly on most rankings of healthiest cities nationwide. To the extent that conservatives in D.C. deviate from this, Meadowcroft is on solid ground chastising them. But lifting weights might not be the best form of physical activity for their improvement (not all of them need to “bulk up,” at least in the way he imagines). He would be wrong to fault those who choose other activities. He might also consider the possibility that others might think he considers them unhealthy simply because they are not as jacked as he is, even if it is not what he intends.

Finally, I wonder if Meadowcroft’s philosophical approach to lifting weights is doing exactly what he claims. He identifies it as a refuge from “the piles of half-read books, unfinished essays, and stupid tweets,” and as a way to approach “sheer embodiedness.” So it surely is, and so running is for me. To step out into the world and to propel myself forward unceasingly through sheer force of will is partly to escape from the workaday tethers of the life of the mind. But physical activity does not merely turn off one’s brain. In my case, it often turns it on. On days I don’t run, my mental faculties can seem barely functional. But during or after a run, problems that seemed intractable to me before can unravel with the aid of extended solitary thought, mixed with sweat and endorphins. If we are embodied beings, then it is wrong ever entirely to escape the life of the mind.

Meadowcroft, to his credit, is not exactly saying that lifting turns off his brain. My main concern about his approach is almost the opposite, in fact: that he seems uncomfortable with accepting physical activity simply for what it is. He builds his case for lifting with references to Camille Paglia, Apollo, C. S. Lewis, Manicheanism, and other abstract intellectual currents. I, too, have been tempted to elevate running into a philosophical pursuit. Undoubtedly even our embodied activities take on the flavor of our inner life. But I worry that Meadowcroft’s speaking of lifting in these terms suggests that he is trying to make it into something it is not, or shouldn’t be. The virtue of physical activity should be, to a considerable extent, its simplicity, its primal nature. It can facilitate highfalutin thoughts, but you don’t need to think such thoughts to do it, or justify it in such terms. There isn’t always a need to pretend lifting or running are anything but. To do otherwise can compromise their essence (and not merely because, as is the case with my sport, overthinking can hamper top performance). Nike’s woke virtue-signaling at home as it ignores (or even sanctions) genocide abroad complicates invoking its slogan. Yet sometimes “Just Do It” is great advice.

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