Exercise and Ethics

While running to the gym, I started thinking about why I exercise. People quite often associate exercise with moral values. Top executives and politicians like to pose as champion triathletes. Obedient workers exercise to take care of themselves in order to provide more value to their employers. Regular exercise supposedly shows others that you are a disciplined person in other fields of life as well. I didn’t like any of this reasoning and wanted to find something else that makes sense.

While running, I noticed I was enjoying myself. My first reason for doing it, then, is enjoyment. I do it because it gives me pleasure. However, when I thought back to the time when I started jogging, it was far from pleasurable. When I started going to the gym, I did not like that very much either. When I did it, I was also cycling a lot, because it was the best way to get around. Therefore, the second reason for doing this is utilitarian. You could even extend the immediate motivation and say that I exercise, in general, so I can get around better. I noticed this was especially important when I broke my ankle a few years ago and had to get around on crutches. Had I been in better shape, it would have been much easier.

Those were two reasons I came up with: enjoyment and utilitarian motives. But there wasn’t a strictly moral element to these. Where does it come from? The one proper reason I could think of that comes close to morality is that physical exercise is an expression of free will. I can go for a jog or choose not to go. Then again, I could do something else with my time. I could work for a charity, or something similar. Wouldn’t that be preferable to running around in the woods?

Is there a continuum of choices? I could sit at home and do nothing, go for a run, or volunteer at a charity. Which one would be preferable? Obviously, helping others at a charity would be the better option. Why choose running over charity? Why not engage in selfless activities instead of relatively futile pastimes like exercise? Compared to more morally commendable activities, exercise seems selfish and perhaps even unethical. Having said that, if sitting at home and exercise are worse options compared to charity, why not just sit at home and do nothing? This leads to the complicated topos of free will and moral responsibility. A single blog post is not the place to go through all that, but at least I found something that links exercise and ethics in a way that I could relate to.

I halt this interior monologue when I go running or go to the gym. Ultimately, it is a moral choice that gives me time to reflect. The odd thing about ethics is that people often try to reduce moral choices into algorithms. Answers should be automatic and follow a moral principle that has been pre-installed in the speaker. This is a bizarre way of thinking about ethics. The questions are difficult and require a lot of reflection. That’s the human element in them and what makes ethics ethics. You will often not find a simple formulaic answer to a moral problem and have to proceed on a case-by-case basis. It’s messy and complicated. Putting one foot in front of the other makes it clear that going through life unthinkingly by following a moral principle systematically can become a systematic way of being stupid unless you mind your step.

I guess that’s why I exercise.

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