Charlton and Exercise

Bruce Charlton is one of the brightest bloggers I’ve ever come across. He’s also brilliant off the internet. He posts interesting, though not always totally convincing essays on a variety of topics: evolution, Mormonism, Christian spirituality, etc. He recently posted about exercise and fitness. This is important for him, I wager, due to his interest in evolution and civilization.

He ends his posting, characterizing people who lift weights thus:

Nowadays, the local equivalent are the vastly bulky androgen-using power-weight-trainers, maybe working as ‘bouncers’ (door security) – who are fit for lifting weights, and strong at lifting weights (and presumably also at shoving and hitting people).

Or perhaps they are sportsmen – who are fit for their sport – strong at whatever the sport requires.

Or perhaps they are the narcissistic weight trainers/ body builders who use drugs (and dietary supplements etc) – but only as a means to the end of enhancing and sculpting their muscles, and making themselves feel more… well, if not exactly ‘masculine’, then at least macho.
They are fit to look at themselves in the mirror; to parade up-and-down in cut-away vests, shorts and flip-flops. They are strong at using exercise machines. 
Fit for what, strong at what?
And what is the point of it?

I do believe that his answers to the closing questions are meant to be inferred to be “Nothing.” and “There isn’t one.” But I would wager that there is ample evidence, scientific (which he notes might be poorly done in the comments) and anecdotal that strength training improves several domains in the life of the practitioner who also aims to practice certain Christian virtues like humility and modesty. Thoughts:

  1. The average western male has a job that precise atrophies the body rather than toughens it. Part of Charlton’s point is that in older times men had bodies that could be useful for battle if need be because their jobs demanded it. Weight training fills precisely this gap.
  2. Weight training, according to many who do it thoughtfully, can improve pain tolerance as well as patience for long term goal seeking.
  3. Being physically stronger, as a Christian, allows one to serve others in more fruitful ways. Moving things, catching people who fall, being less tired after physical exertion are all useful skills that are strongly lacking in our era.
  4. Physical strength can decrease the likelihood of several types of injuries because weight training strengthens bones, connective tissue, and muscle.
  5. Caring about physical beauty is not, in itself, vain. Weight training is a way to maintain physical appearance without resorting to methods that do not arrange for personal discipline or physical improvement (like various make-ups, piercings, and personal enhancements)
  6. Most people I know who lift weights also note an increase in mental acuity and focus when they are disciplined about the process and their diet.
  7. Very few weightlifters that I know actually dress the way he mentions except in the gym (where I lift, it is incredibly hot, I simply wear basketball shorts and a single pocket shirt I bought when I was 18).
  8. He is right that in some sense improvement is task specific, but there is such a thing as general strength. Learning to use exercise machines does not necessarily translate well into other tasks, but lifting heavy objects, doing chin-ups, running sprints, etc all translate well into other tasks.
  9. Weight training can lead to helpful results when only a brief time is used per week over the course of a year. Somebody who walks for an hour every day need only utilize an hour maximum one to three times a week to see excellent results over the course of a year.

I’m citing anecdotal evidence here precisely because all of these claims could be attested to by asking a large number of people who, precisely because they take their exercise seriously do not have the moral maladies Dr. Charlton associates with that particular use of leisure time. I’ve had very useful improvements in my health from strength training, some of which involved utilizing self-experiments very similar to those Dr. Charlton himself laments the loss of in modern science.

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