Physical Virtues? When we train our physicality, there are so many lessons in the pursuit of changing our bodies. These ‘virtues’ are skills that we develop, like hard work, persistence, planning, and courage. But they don’t STAY exclusive to the gym. Whether we know it or not, these virtues carryover to other aspects of our lives.
Today, we get a chance to sit down with a man trying to understand this cross-section between the way we live and our fitness. Greg Hickey is creator of Kinesophy.com, a blog that explores the importance of physical virtues and their impact on what it means to be a good human.
Hi Greg, thank you for taking the time to do this with us. From your, bio you’ve accomplished some amazing things: Forensic scientist, philosophy graduate, professional baseball player, personal trainer, and novelist.
Thank you. It’s my pleasure. I’m impressed by your work on Chronicles of Fitness and I’m excited to contribute some of my thoughts.
What made the transition for you into forensics from philosophy?
Actually, it was the opposite. My undergraduate degree was in philosophy, my graduate degree in forensic science. Although, I have been interested in forensics for a long time, so maybe it was forensics, philosophy, and then back to forensics.
I forget what drew me to forensics in the first place. But I think I enjoyed science as a student and found forensics a very practical and accessible application of science to a real-world problem like crime. When you’re learning science in school, you’re so busy memorizing periodic tables and crossing alleles that it’s sometimes hard to see the bigger picture, in which the end goal is to apply all this knowledge to answer questions about the world. Forensic science helped me find an outlet for my scientific curiosity.
At the same time, I realized in college that I didn’t want to devote four years to general science. I loved the mind puzzles and ethical dilemmas of philosophy, so I chose philosophy as my major and took enough science classes to qualify me for a graduate program in forensics.
And you’ve been writing for some time, correct?
Yes. I actually started my first novel the summer after I finished seventh grade. But I didn’t get very far on that project because I quickly realized I preferred to be playing outside with my friends. After that, I took a creative writing class in high school and wrote the early drafts of my screenplay Vita while in college. That was my first long-form project. After that, I wrote two novels and I’m currently working on a third. Plus, my blog KineSophy, where I write about a variety of topics in physical fitness and philosophy.
Could you explain your journey?
I grew up playing a variety of sports—baseball, basketball, soccer and karate, among others. Eventually, I focused my attention on baseball and played through college. College was also my first experience with a formal philosophy course, and I wrote the final paper for my first college philosophy class on examples of physical activity and physical virtues in major philosophical works. In hindsight, that was my first foray into the kind of subjects I tackle on KineSophy. Three years later, I had to miss a baseball practice to defend my philosophy thesis on moral realism.
After graduation, I spent a year playing and coaching for baseball teams in Sundsvall, Sweden and Cape Town, South Africa. I also spent a lot of that time writing my first novel. When I returned to the States, I began working part-time as a personal trainer and started in a forensic science graduate program. As a coach and trainer, I was paid to advocate for the benefits of physical fitness and performance as part of an overall lifestyle. I also had to manage players’ and clients’ emotional and psychological health. And I had the chance to observe how physical success or failure translated to non-physical issues (and vice versa).
I had a lot of great, motivated clients as a personal trainer. But like any trainer, I also had to deal with my fair share of excuses and equivocations. I began to see how these rationalizations for a client’s lapses in the physical tasks necessary to reach his goals mirrored rationalizations for ethical missteps. Statements like “I’m too busy,” “It’s too hard,” or “It wasn’t my fault,” can be excuses for skipping workouts, neglecting diet journals, littering or refusing to help someone in need.
I realized that physical demands have a great way of exposing the rationalizations we all make. You can either lift a weight or you can’t. You can either run a certain speed or you can’t. If one of my baseball players asked about his omission from the lineup or a personal training client complained about not reaching her weight goal, I could point to specific missteps that led to those outcomes. We’d like to be able to pinpoint similar failings in ethical matters, but it’s usually not that easy. But I have long believed that meeting physical challenges can help people meet challenges in other spheres of life. So that was my initial impetus to start KineSophy.
Now, you run a site called Kinesophy. And on that site, you talk about physical virtues. Could you explain physical virtues a bit more?
Virtues are a part of ethics, where ethics is the set of directives governing what a person should do. So virtues are qualities individuals should have, according to some ethical theory. We all know what physical virtues are: speed, strength, endurance, etc. And in classical philosophy, physical virtues were discussed right alongside virtues like intelligence, honesty and justice.
The famous Greek philosopher Plato was also a wrestler; his name comes from platon, meaning “broad-shouldered.” His student, Aristotle, ran a school called the Lyceum, which doubled as a space for physical exercise and military training. Both Plato and Aristotle, among others, regularly described physical virtues in their work.
But over time, philosophy has ignored self-directed virtues like strength and intelligence and focused more and more on other-directed virtues like generosity and justice. There’s good reason for this change in approach, and we can discuss where physical virtues should rank in a hierarchy of virtues, but I think physical virtues are still desirable and praiseworthy qualities.
What is it about physical virtues that make us better fit to perform? What’s the history behind it?
On one level, physical virtues are simply important for good health. If you have more strength and endurance, you’ll likely live longer and remain in better health. In fact, some of the best predictors of longevity are grip strength, leg strength, VO2 max, lean body mass and mobility (specifically sitting and rising from the ground).
But we also think having virtues makes an individual a better person. Take someone like Mother Teresa as an example. She was an incredibly virtuous person. What if, in addition to all the virtues she possessed, she was also an Olympic-caliber athlete?
I think we’d have to say the Olympian version of Mother Teresa was an even more virtuous person. Now I’m not saying that physical virtues somehow make up for being an otherwise reprehensible person, just that they are virtues that we can account for when we consider an individual’s merits.
Then there’s one more level to physical virtues. Practicing physical fitness leads people to develop non-physical virtues. Many studies have shown that physical exercise improves cognitive performance. Other research demonstrates that prisoners who regularly practice yoga are less likely to be re-incarcerated after they are released.
Even a fitness practice like mixed martial arts, which you would think would encourage aggressive, violent behavior, has been shown to benefit people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, even those who have symptoms of anger and violence.
And what does my deadlift got to do with it?
If we say a quality like strength is a virtue, then next question is “How much strength should a person have?” Imagine you find yourself in a burning building. Another person lies unconscious on the ground in front of you. I think you should help this person to safety if you can do so without greatly endangering your own well-being. The question becomes whether or not you are strong enough to lift and move this lifeless body.
Claiming you never developed the requisite strength because you never expected to find yourself in such a situation doesn’t seem like an acceptable response. We wouldn’t accept a capable adult’s claim that he never expected to be in a dangerous situation as an excuse for his cowardice, nor a capable adult claiming she never expected to be without a calculator as an excuse for her not knowing multiplication tables.
However, it seems unreasonable to presume that a trim 120-pound woman should lift a 400-pound sumo wrestler. And we shouldn’t expect an octogenarian or a pre-adolescent child to complete this task. But a healthy adult between the ages of twenty and thirty-five is certainly capable of lifting his or her own body weight. So a human being should be able to lift an object equal in weight to his or her own body off the ground, i.e. a human being should be able to deadlift his or her own body weight. In my opinion, that’s what counts as the minimum standard for the virtue of strength.
How have you yourself used this idea of physical virtues (or their impact) in regards to your career and projects?
Also, you said that you are competing. What is it about competition that you think is important, regardless of age? How does it (if at all) relate to one’s physical virtues?
You’ve also advocate physical virtues into protein consumption. Something all of us athletes are fixated with. Why do you believe moderation and counterbalance are important in this?
I generally think of philosophy as having two components: 1) a study of knowledge (how we acquire it, where we store it and how we access it) and 2) a study of ethics, i.e. how we should act. I applied this philosophical framework to my diet over a couple KineSophy articles.
To start, I still compete in triathlons and I want to give myself the best opportunity to live a long and healthy life. So I ran six months of experiments on my diet, varying the balance of my macro-nutrient intake and seeing how these changes affected my heart rate, central nervous system function, workouts, cognitive performance, sleep and body composition. I found that I did better on almost all of these metrics when I consumed a little more protein than I had done previously.
I then shifted my attention to the second component of that framework and investigated how eating more protein would affect animals and the environment. Many people follow a vegan diet, not only because they believe this diet improves their overall health, but because they believe it is morally wrong to kill animals or because they believe the way we raise and hunt the animals we eat places a heavy cost on the Earth’s ecosystem.
So I researched the top protein sources for vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian and omnivorous diets and assessed these foods for their protein content, cost, greenhouse gas emissions, and water and energy use. In the end, I was able to come up with a pretty comprehensive list of the most sustainable protein sources.
Awesome! Thank you for sharing the impact of philosophy on movement and fitness. It really breeds an inter-connectivity between physicality and spirit. It was great talking with you Greg.
Greg Hickey is a former professional baseball player/coach, personal trainer and philosophy student and current endurance athlete and author. His blog KineSophy explores connections between health, fitness, sports, philosophy and society, with a particular emphasis on incorporating physical virtues into a plan of ethics.