A Hedonistic View of Physical Health

Overheard this weekend (can’t remember where):

“Eat healthy; exercise regularly; die anyway.”

It’s a sentiment I’ve heard many times before. You’re going to die anyway — so why bother living healthy? Why not just enjoy life? Sure, eating well and getting regular exercise might lengthen your life a little… but is it really that important to have a longer life? Isn’t it more important to have a satisfying one?

So today, I want to evangelize a little for the cause of eating well and getting regular vigorous exercise.

And I want to do it, not in opposition to hedonism, but in passionate support of it.

If the only reason I worked out was to extend my life, I might well not do it. I certainly wouldn’t do it as much. After all, what’s the point of having more time if you’re just spending that extra time walking on a treadmill?

So I don’t work out so I’ll live longer.

I work out so I have more energy. So I sleep better, and am not tired all day. So I’m less likely to suffer from depression. So my joints don’t hurt when I dance, or walk, or indeed when I try to fall asleep. So I’m better able to focus and stay alert and present. So I have a higher libido. So I feel more at home in my body.

And ditto all that with eating a healthy diet.

In other words:

Eating well and exercising aren’t obstacles to an enjoyable life.

They’re what make it possible.

Sure, when I was in my twenties, I could live a happily sybaritic life and still eat junk and never work out. I could dance ’til three, stay up all night playing cards, do drugs, chase women, march in the streets — all the things that made my twenty- something life worth living — with practically no effort.

But I’m 47 now. If I eat crap, I feel like crap. If I don’t work out, I get logy, irritable, depressed, easily bored, easily distracted, and physically uncomfortable. (The effect isn’t subtle, either: if I have to skip the gym for even just a couple weeks due to illness or travel or something, I start to feel achy and crabby very, very fast.)

But if I eat well and get regular vigorous exercise, I have the energy, and the focus, and the mood, to engage in the things that make my life meaningful and fun. I can put in a full day at the office, and still go out dancing, or spend an hour cooking a meal, or work on my book proposal, or write my congressperson. I can take a two- mile walk showing friends and family the wonderful neighborhood I live in. I can spend a day running around doing errands and still go out to a party at ten at night. I can dance all night, fuck all night, stay up all night talking with friends, stay up all night blogging. (Well, maybe not all night — but fairly late.)

And so I say again: Eating well and exercising aren’t obstacles to enjoying my life. They’re what make it possible.

I thoroughly agree that living this life to its fullest is crucial. (And no, that doesn’t mean being thoroughly selfish or self-indulgent; in fact, I strongly think that “living life to its fullest” includes empathy and social responsibility and staying connected with the world around us.) I think this life is the only one we have, and that not experiencing it with as much richness as we can is a tragic waste.

But if this life — and this body — is the only one we have, then don’t we want it in good working order? If you had a car that you knew for a fact was the only one you were ever going to have for the rest of your life, wouldn’t you give it regular tune-ups and oil changes? Like, to a psychotically obsessive degree? Not just so it ran long, but so it ran well, and could reliably get you where you wanted to go?

And assuming the answer is yes… why should you treat your body any differently?

I don’t think being healthy means constant self-deprivation. The occasional donut, the occasional Manhattan or three, the occasional day spent in bed or on the sofa… these have an important place in a healthy life. As Dr. Hibbert said on The Simpsons, “I feel a balanced diet can include the occasional eating contest.”

But these bodies are the only ones we’re ever going to have. In fact, I’ll go further than that. We don’t have our bodies. We are our bodies. The best evidence we have is that our consciousness, our ability to choose, everything we think of as our selves… all of that comes from our brains, and from our brains’ interactions with the rest of our bodies and with the rest of the world. And our brains are one of the main body parts we have that functions and feels better with a healthy diet and regular vigorous exercise.

And since we are our bodies, making our bodies happy is how we make ourselves happy.

I get that it’s hard. Boy howdy, do I get it. Especially at first. It does get easier with time, as your habits change: as you find healthy food that you think is delicious, as you find types of exercise you think are fun, as you learn to connect your moods and energy levels with how you’re eating and moving. But I won’t deny that it can be hard. (I recommend incremental change: adding one or two workouts a week, changing two or three meals a week from junk to actual food… and when you’re adjusted to that, adding one or two more.)

But my point is this: I think it’s a mistake to look at eating well and exercising as punishment, or as deprivation, or as virtuous but purgatorial and boring. I think it makes much more sense — and is much more sustainable — to look at eating well and exercising as a gateway to a delightfully hedonistic, richly satisfying, vigorously pleasurable life. I say one more time: Taking care of our bodies is not an obstacle to enjoying life. It is what makes enjoying life possible.

Other posts in this series:
The Eroticism of Exercise

A Hedonistic View of Physical Health

12 thoughts on “A Hedonistic View of Physical Health

  1. 1

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, and want to echo how so very important it is to find a physical activity that’s enjoyable, and to find healthy food that are tasty.
    Those things make healthy living sooooo much easier.

  2. 2

    I completely agree with this. I am 41 and have been exercising regularly/eating well for the last 17-18 years. Sure, over the years, I have had times where I was off the wagon for a few weeks, sometimes even a couple of months, but as soon as I get back in a healthy routine, I feel so much stronger.
    I was not an athletic child/teenager, so for me being active now is a conscious choice, not something someone else wants me to do. At 41, I feel more confident in my body than I did at 21 or even 31, which helps me feel more sexual and better able to express my needs.
    To add to the suggestion about finding exercise that you like to do and finding foods that are tasty, I would say to realize that this is a permanent lifestyle change, not a temporary one. Do it for you and make sure that nothing interferes (within reason.)

  3. 3

    You are so right. I had let myself go for a few years, and I was always tired, felt achy most of the time, didn’t feel good about myself, and the sex drive had pretty much disappeared.
    I’ve lost 70#, and feel so much better now. I don’t hurt all the time, I have a lot more energy to do fun things, I’m a lot happier, and the sex drive came back with a vengeance :).
    All those years wasted feeling bad, when a few simple changes could have made them so much better.

  4. 4

    I agree that it’s a difficult thing to do. One of the ways that I got around that was to start bicycling to and from work.
    It forces you to finish your workout because if you don’t, you’ve got nowhere to sit down!

  5. 5

    Me, too. I just feel so much better when I exercise. I have arthritis in my knees now so I can’t do any high impact stuff but thinking about swimming lessons. I am bored with the stationary bike. I sit at a desk all day long so when I get out of there I gotta move or I will go nuts.

  6. 6

    Yeah, I have a bad knee too, Donna. I feel your pain. The elliptical machines at the gym have been a lifesaver — great cardio workout with pretty much zero impact. Weights are good for people with knee problems too, if you pick your routines carefully… but I realize that, to put it mildly, not everyone thinks weightlifting is as much fun as I do. And definitely go for the swimming. I hate it myself, but I hear it’s a great workout.

  7. 7

    I just turned thirty and I felt all those horrible ways through my twenties (logy, depressed, etc), plus full of self-loathing for being such a fat pig. Fatter then than I ever was, even now, but I stuffed my face at McD’s every damn day. Started a diet/exercise at about twenty-five and felt great for a year or two–lost about thirty pounds that first year. After that, I got to finally go to school (which is what I’d been saving for), and everything fell apart, culminating in a twice-smashed knee and torn ankle that kept me from moving right for over a year! So I gained it all back, and man do I feel like I did when I was twenty!
    You pretty much said it for me, though, when you mentioned diet and exercise for hedonism. I spent my twenties tired, depressed, friendless, working a dead-end job to save my pennies for school (couldn’t even get a loan, my parents made just a tiny bit too much–not enough to help, just enough to fuck me over). As far as I’m concerned, I’m not thirty–I’m twenty. I felt thirty when I was twenty, and now that I’m a much healthier thirty, I want to get all those things that I missed out on. I want to go to parties and concerts wearing a mini that I’d never have thought of wearing, and picking up incredible-looking guys I’d never have raised my meek, fat-crushed eyes to when I was twenty. I am losing this weight once and for all, and I am going to feel great about myself, both inside and out.
    I have a lot of incentives, and you mentioned them (high energy, less depressed, etc.). Those alone would be plenty of incentive for a good diet and exercise program. But my biggest incentive is to get my hands on a twenty-five year old with sculpted shoulders and hips, a tapering waist, and long incredible legs. I think I deserve that at least once in my life. And for once in my life, I can say that without blushing shamefully.
    Not that I’m planning on living my thirties in complete promiscuous sluthood–I’d just like to have a bit of the fun I’ve never allowed myself to even think of with some of the kinds of guys I’ve never allowed myself to dream of, just for a while before I settle down (again). 🙂

  8. sav

    I love weights, too. Since I started lifting weights, I go to the gym much more often. I feel my heart gets a better workout than just pumping away on a machine, and I feel good afterward.

  9. 11

    “Eat healthy; exercise regularly; die anyway.” – Haha! This is very eye catching!
    Back to the topic, you are probably right out there. We don’t have to be healthy because of the reason to extend our life. It’s better to live and enjoy life in a healthier way.

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