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