Fitness Advice from Socrates

socratesOnly three writers from antiquity tell us anything about the great philosopher Socrates: Plato; Aristophanes, the playwright, and today’s guest, Xenophon.  In his book The Memorabilia,Xenophon relates a brief exchange between Socrates and one of his students, Epigenes, in which the older man berates the younger for being out of shape.

Do you count the life and death struggle with their enemies, upon which, it may be, the Athenians will enter, but a small thing? Why, many, thanks to their bad condition, lose their life in the perils of war or save it disgracefully: many, just for this same cause, are taken prisoners, and then either pass the rest of their days, perhaps, in slavery of the hardest kind, or, after meeting with cruel sufferings and paying, sometimes, more than they have, live on, destitute and in misery.

Why, then, does Socrates tell Epigenes to get to the gym? Happily it isn’t so that the younger man can get chicks. (Actually, that thinking could take us into a whole other, uncomfortable aspect of Greek culture.) Instead, Socrates appeals to the patriotism and self-interest of Epigenes. Essentially he says, “If you’re a fatty, then you won’t be able to defend our city, and, if you don’t care about that, then you also run the risk of dying or being made a slave.”

I can admire the reasons Socrates gives for being fit, but he utterly neglects the most important reason. Jesus, we learn in Luke 2:52, increased in favor with God and man as he grew up. Socrates’ thinking here focuses strictly on the favor of man, ignoring the desires of God.

Epigenes might allow his desire for the pizza buffet to outweigh his pride and patriotism. He might decide he didn’t care about Athens or that he would take his chances in battle. He might recognize that these war-time appeals would become less significant as he grew older.

God’s claims on our fitness are stronger and more enduring than those that Socrates presents to Epigenes. Sorry, Socrates.

The Excuse Man

Writers sometimes succumb to the need to meet a deadline or the ulterior motives that lead them to the keyboard in the first place. I’m fairly sure that’s what happened when Nir Eyal wrote “Your Fitness App is Making You Fat.” Had Eyal written this as one of my composition students, he’d have earned a decent grade but gotten a healthy dose of critical comments for the weakness of his argument.

Fitness apps are all the rage. A raft of new companies and products want to track your steps and count your calories with the aim of melting that excess blubber. There’s just one problem — most of these apps don’t work. In fact, there is good reason to believe they make us fatter.

Like a good college Freshman, Eyal provides three strands of support for his attention-grabbing thesis. (And hey, he did get me to read the column, right?) Of course, he really doesn’t provide the smoking gun to prove his point, but let’s not nitpick. So what, in this writer’s universe, is  wrong with fitness apps?

First–and this is going to shock you–MyFitnessPal is not a personal registered dietician. It focuses on calories in and calories out, ignoring the other factors that lead to weight gain and loss. Eyal points out that to the app, “a calorie of high-fructose corn syrup is the same as a calorie of protein,” which is more or less true. But honestly, if anyone using such an app thinks that a diet of Snickers bars is the same as a diet of varied fresh food, they probably deserve to pack on some pounds. As someone who has used MyFitnessPal for over a year and a half, I can say that, while not perfect, its calorie-based records tend to correlate with my weight fluctuations awfully well.

Second–again, a shock–exercise can lead to injury. Huh? Yes, that’s actually a major part of his second premise. Apparently, the injuries that come from exercise can all be blamed on MapMyRun. Before that product arrived, no one got hurt. Oh, and exercise makes us hungry leading us to eat. This explains why world-class marathoners and professional cyclists are typically lugging around enormous beer guts. Honestly, whatever negatives come from exercise, they existed long before the apps.

Third–fitness apps are not magical things that create wonder and delight in our lives. Eyal’s logic gets a bit tortured here. Your new FitBit is boring. Therefore, you stop using it. Therefore, you gain weight. Do the more boring apps cause us to gain weight faster? What our author neglects to mention is that a fitness app is a tool. Tools don’t have to be exciting, habit-forming, or utterly transformative. They have to do a job. My bicycle tire pump is not exciting, but it is effective. I’d rather not have to use it, but I am glad it is there.

Nir Eyal specializes in the psychology of habit-forming products, so is it any wonder that he tries to create a need for his own products–books and blog–by pointing out the perceived flaws in fitness apps? Many people in the fitness world spend their time and marketing budgets trying to convince us that we’re eating the wrong foods, performing the wrong exercises, or wearing the wrong clothes when we eat or exercise. Not surprisingly, those people tend to have the right foods (or diet plans), the right exercise plans and equipment, and the snazziest of clothes to sell. And they take all the major credit cards.

Curiously, Eyal doesn’t diss fitness apps in order to sell his own. He’s like the guy who points out all the faults in churches to justify sleeping in on Sunday. With his wealth of insight, I would expect this writer to be hard at work designing the killer fitness app. Given the popularity of the genre, it seems obvious that he could earn more from that effort than from a so-so blog entry.

What’s on Your Plate?

“What’s for dinner?” Is any more important question ever passed between spouses during a Sunday morning lull in the sermon? What could be more spiritual than considering in advance the contents of your dinner plate? This morning, however, that sermon urged me to think not about literal food but about metaphorical food. “What’s on your plate?” in terms of responsibilities and projects.

plate 2

Over lunch today, I wrote down my priorities–the activities that I would hope would fill my life–on a paper plate. At the center of the plate I placed God. I’d hope any Christian would aim to put God at the center of life, even if He gets pushed off toward the Brussels sprouts from time to time.

Around the perimeter of my plate I arranged three items: Family, Writing, and Teaching. Those are my items. Yours, more than likely, will be different, perhaps Time Travel or Nuclear Fusion.

But then I sat back and thought about the amount of time that I spend running, biking, eating right, and doing other health maintenance activities. Should these things have gone alongside Family, Writing, and Teaching on the plate’s edge? I don’t believe they do go there. Instead, my fitness activities, whether they be physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, serve those other items already written on my plate.

Think about it. By eating right and keeping my body reasonably fit, I’ll have more energy to teach, more years to write, and a greater ability to serve my family. Rather than sacrificing part of my plate to accommodate running and healthy eating, I recognize that these activities actually help me have a bigger plate.

Whatever you have on your plate, wherever God leads you to invest your time, good stewardship demands that fitness matters have a place on the platter. It’s not that controlling your blood pressure or eating more vegetables are ends in themselves. Similarly, sharpening your mind or increasing your emotional intelligence will strengthen you in all areas and help you to achieve more wherever God calls you.

What’s on your plate? Whatever it is, a serving of fitness will aid the digestion. Now if only that burrito I had for lunch would do the same.

Stand up for Jesus (and yourself)

The people in my choir almost uniformly groan when the director asks them to stand up to sing a piece in rehearsal. “It’s too much trouble,” we seem to say.

At the risk of sounding boastful, I’ll claim that I never groan about standing. Normally I’m frustrated to be singing “Stand up, stand up for Jesus” with my keister firmly planted in the chair. Besides, I know that the 210 calories that I’ll burn during a 90-minute choir rehearsal would jump to about 270 if I were standing.


A recent news item reports a study performed at the Medical College of Wisconsin suggesting that every daily hour a person spends sitting increases their chances of developing heart disease by 14%. The skeptic in me wonders if those who have an 8-hour-a-day sitting job have a 112% chance of developing heart disease.

The participants all spent between two to 12 hours a day sitting at the office and in front of the television. The researchers concluded that for every hour spent sitting, the levels of deposit rose by 14 per cent.

It’s a wonder that those 12-hour sitters aren’t already dead. I’m not sure if this report reveals poor science or poor journalism–the latter, I would hope–but the basic idea makes sense. Far too many of us roll out of bed in the morning and then sit in the car (or on public transport) en route to a job where we mostly sit at a computer before heading back home to sit on a different computer or in front of the TV when we’re not sitting on the couch or at the table stuffing our faces with unhealthy food.

While the math of this report might not make a lot of sense, the basic idea is sound not just physiologically but spiritually. Do you serve God best while sitting down? Do you build up and preserve your body on the couch? Do you make the most of what you have been given from a perch in the La-Z Boy?

Stand up for Jesus, people. Stand up.