Thursday, August 5

Notes from a Calvinist Fitness Heretic

skepticI hate exercise.

In fact, I hate fitness. Well ... wait a minute … OK ... let’s back up a couple of steps. I do not hate fitness per se. What I hate is the contemporary American de facto religion of "Fitness-ianity", which is determinedly and relentlessly and remorselessly "Arminian" in its insistence that fitness is ... dammit all! ... a choice equally available to all and pristinely independent of one's genetics, physical limitations, aptitudes, and circumstances, per omnia saecula saeculorum, “Here endeth the lesson,” world without end, amen ... and while you're at it, gimme another toke offa that bong! I disagree. Based on my own life-experience, my family history, my (congenital utter lack of) athleticism, and my heredity, I am a confirmed hard-shell Calvinist. Why?  Because I know better:  perhaps in nothing else, but at least in regard to fitness, genetics is destiny.

St. Augustine

This conviction, of course, immediately brands me as a heretic, as if John Calvin had been time-warped back to the University of Paris of Aquinas' day. For I am St. Augustine to our contemporary iron-pumping, Spandex-clad Pelagians.  It has variously been said that the last great religion to be spawned was Islam in the 600s CE, or alternatively that the last such was Marxism spawned in the first half of the 1800s or Mormonism at about the same time, etc., etc. Those are very formidable contenders, but I think a stronger case can be made that the last great religion, in a de facto sense and at least in the United States, is the religion of health, diet, and fitness. Consider: the Arminian faith of “Fitness-ianity” partakes of many of the most constitutive characteristics of conservative … yea and verily! even evangelical … religion.

o Personality cults centered on the founder of a given sect of “Fitness-ianity”

Christianity is basically a personality cult centered on Jesus Christ; Islam, on Muhammad; Judaism on various prominent religious thinkers and teachers, chiefly Abraham and Moses, but also, e.g., the Baal Shem Tov, Reb Menachem Mendl Morgenstern of Kotzk; Mormonism, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard; et al.. Even Buddhism, a non-theistic religion, is centered on the person of Gautama Siddhartha – with the salient difference that the Buddha himself allegedly advised his followers that, if one met him by the side of the road, one should kick him aside and continue on upon one’s own path. The senseis, tzaddikim, and saviors of “Fitness-ianity” have different names, but the same function, which is essentially to provide sources of authority and structure and validation for those who follow their respective fitness cults: Jenny Craig, Dr. Atkins, Dr. Oz, etc. Note the universal absence of Ben and Jerry from such lists. And Little Debbie. And Sara Lee. The latter three and their multitudes of avatars are to “Fitness-ianity” as the thetans are to Scientology, as the nephilim are to Mormonism, as Ahriman is to Zoroastrianism, etc., etc., etc.: the gastronomic Manichean personae of Darkness in perennial, and perennially irresolvable, conflict with the Light of physical fitness.

o Doctrine and heresy

 Even “Fitness-ianity” sects that are not – at least explicitly – centered on a founder’s personality all define their programs in terms of a certain suite of orthodox doctrines, and, by implication, a corresponding suite of heretical teachings. One of the central doctrines common to all “Fitness-ian” sects is the doctrine concerning the necessity of regular and vigorous exercise. Couch potatoes and lounge lizards are, as a matter of the solemn and ordinary “Fitness-ian” magisterium, rank heretics and apostates.


Now, I have no bone to pick, per se, regarding exercise evangelists in the various sub-cults of “Fitness-ianity”. Exercise is good. I exercise regularly. I walk 4 miles a day at least 5 days a week. But I do have a very large bone, in fact a whole skeleton's worth, to pick with the Arminian context in which “Fitness-ians” advocate exercise, because – like all conservative evangelical religions – the Arminian / quasi-Pelagian presuppositions result in an utter lack of any tragic sense. The belief, often unstated, with which I disagree is simply this: that anyone can, by choosing to do so through discipline and hard work, attain an arbitrarily high level of fitness. The corollary, of course, is that if you are not fit, it is because you choose not to be. Choice is all. Pelagius could not have said it better himself, even if he had been pumping iron while wearing a Gold’s Gym “wife-beater” t-shirt at the time he said it.

And therein lies my heresy.

Being a skeptic, I insist on maintaining an intimate relationship with reality, with the way things actually are and the way matters actually stand, irrespective of the meretricious blandishments of my fond preferences about anything. Such fidelity is utterly inconsistent with unconditional adherence to any religion, be it a religion of the spirit or one of the body. At some point, one must choose: reality or ideology. Multitudes of people choose the latter.

Just this past week, as this is written (10 October), the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, provided us with a sterling example -- destined to become classical, I believe -- of choosing ideology over reality: just have faith, ladies, “ride the karma” (my phrase) and you will get your raise … which – speaking of raises -- raises the question of why, if this principle actually holds anywhere outside of Mr. Nadella’s skull, women, who have presumably been “riding the karma” for their entire professional lives, nevertheless continue to earn only 78% of what men earn for doing the same work. But … the latter fact, you see, is reality, which must be forsaken in favor of clinging to a belief in the allegedly unerring benevolence of “karma”. Similarly, there are people, on the physical side of the ledger, who with staunch, square-jawed determination continue to ignore the reality of the Great Chromosome Lottery, genetics, and heredity in favor of jogging and yoga-ing and stretching doggedly toward the ever-receding goal of someday … when? … don’t distract me! … having a body like Michelle Pfeiffer or Brad Pitt.


The brute fact is that, contra the Pelagian culture of “Fitness-ianity,” the Michelle Pfeiffers and Brad Pitts are the way they are because the Calvinistic imponderables of heredity made them that way from the moment the sperm hit the egg – made them the “elect” – and left the rest of us, which is most of us, “reprobates”. No amount of sweat and sore muscles and plain-yogurt lunches will change that.

o Chronic over-promising

 Religions, especially monotheisms and most especially conservative monotheisms, subsist by chronically over-promising, but more than this – and herein lies their genius – by chronically over-promising in precisely those specific areas in which their adherents most passionately desire to believe. For example, in the rural, Depression-era northwest Arkansas both my parents grew up in, most people knew only grinding poverty. (My maternal grandparents, though also farmers, were actually pretty well off, but they were very much the exception.) So, of course, they were susceptible to the local evangelists’ 1920s- and 1930s-era rhetoric that described Heaven in terms of streets paved with gold, of mansions in the Father’s great House, of an inexhaustible and eternal Banquet (“the Marriage Supper of the Lamb”), of soft robes and starry crowns, etc., etc. Their fundamentalist evangelicalism pandered to these longings and fed them what they wanted to believe in the first place.

Similarly, the evangelicalism of “Fitness-ianity” panders to visions of six-pack abs (instead of abs that come from too many six-packs), slim thighs and taut bosoms, and the ability to bench press the entire Seattle Symphony as it plays Beethoven’s Ninth. Furthermore, “Fitness-ianity” promises that all this can be achieved with no, or at most quite minimal, effort. Every time I go up to the second floor of the Boeing health and fitness center over by the Museum of Flight to walk my 4 miles on the indoor jogging track, I notice a big poster just outside the entrance to the track. The poster depicts a young woman in radiantly perfect physical condition, stretching and smiling beatifically, sporting nary a drop of sweat, underneath a slogan: “Fall Into Fitness”. Of course, “Fall” urges people to maintain exercise programs through the hot-cocoa-by-the-fire days of autumn, but it also conveys the idea that one can merely “fall” into fitness. The reality, of course, is that whatever level of “fitness” one achieves – if any – is to be attained only through sweating, sore muscles, grunting, sweating, cursing, stretching, sweating … including, as in my case, sciatica and a herniated cervical disc that required surgery, followed by three weeks off work, to fix … all adding up to ... well ... perhaps not-one-whole-helluva-lot. Such is the fate of a physical-culture “reprobate,” of a Calvinist heretic wandering the breathtakingly-low-body-mass-index landscape of “Fitness-ianity”.


But, of course, “Fitness-ianity”, like all religions generally, is Big Business at least as much as it is Big Health, and the first thing to be sold is that something of value may be had for either nothing or very little. (Don’t believe me? Read the Jenny Craig ads.) In other words, we are talking a marketing strategy of Pelagianism-on-the-cheap, since even Pelagius himself believed you had to work your ass off. Nowhere must there be a trace of the Calvinistic tragedy of genomic or chromosomal predestination-to-damnation. Wanna be fit? Great! Just grab a yoga mat, a set of free weights, and a good pair of jogging shoes! Anyone can do it!

o Fictitious experiences of beatitude

By this I mean that every religion – again especially, though not exclusively, conservative evangelicalism – is accompanied by a practice whereby its adherents always tell one another that they are experiencing continuously escalating levels of happiness that, at least to an outsider, sound suspiciously fabricated. This practice is enshrined especially – though, again, not exclusively – in conservative evangelical and fundamentalist hymnody, which tells us that “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before,” that one can “Come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses” and talk intimately with Jesus, etc. (The latter, in fact, incorporates a rather thinly veiled element of eroticism which most fundamentalists would find scandalous, were it ever made explicit … so dare we mutter Freudian-isms about “the return of the repressed”?)  Now, your Faithful Skeptic is hardly the one to wax rapturous about  the celestial delights of Divinity. So for all I know, such blisses may indeed be the lot of the Calvinist / Augustinian “elect,” but for the rest of us – us the “reprobates,” us the “un-Raptured Ones,” us the “Left-Behind-ers”, us the wearers of elastic-waist pants – they are, at most, fictions to be longed for rather than realities to be experienced.


So also with “Fitness-ianity”. Exercise, good diet – all the elements of orthodox “Fitness-ian” practice – will supposedly result in increased energy levels, enhanced emotional health, elevated libido, etc., etc., etc. Athletes, even weekend joggers and recreational walkers like your undersigned Faithful Skeptic, occasionally rhapsodize about getting their "second wind”. Well, I have been a hanger-on “Fitness-ian” since shortly after we moved from Boston to Seattle about 22 years ago, have been regularly walking with varying degrees of strenuousness and practicing varying degrees of austerity in my diet – and I have yet to access the kendo, to achieve the satori, to experience anything like a bo-tree moment of enlightenment in the form of a “second wind”. I sweat.  I get tired. I start gasping for breath, and either take a break or stop altogether, depending how far I have walked up to that point. That's it. That's all.  My only reward has been – but this is significant and a motivator in its own right – much more pedestrian … so to speak: about a 40% reduction in blood pressure, both diastolic and systolic, and a certain leveling-off of the weight curve. Not the Beatific Vision of the Most Blessed Trinity vouchsafed to the firstborn seraphim.  But I’ll settle for much more mundane attainments.

As for the rest … the increased energy, the enhanced libido, etc. ... let’s just say that I am rather convinced that a cattle feedlot the size of the Oort Cloud could not contain such volumes of bovine waste.  Only the sheer, and sheerly human, desire to believe is capacious enough.

o So -- given that I will never be one of the "elect" -- why do I continue to do it?

I suppose for the same reason a "reprobate" in the Geneva of John Calvin -- someone who was predestined to damnation and who damn well knew it -- might nevertheless continue to pray, read the Bible, go to church, etc.:  can't hurt, might help.  My blood pressure is actually in the low-normal range, ditto LDL cholesterol, and my weight, while still somewhat high, is not increasing.

Besides, exercise fascinates me:  I can sit and watch it for hours!

James R. Cowles


  • I absolutely love this essay. I smiled throughout, sometimes chuckling, and frequently (silently) hooting and cheering. I will take credit for my choices in making me who I became and who I am during most of my 70 years of living, but destiny is definitely the cause of what my body is like. Can I do that? 😀

    • Sure you can … Many (most?) of the choices we make are quite consequential. But your body is “hard-coded”, as I said, from the moment the sperm hits the egg. You can make temporary changes. I am good friends with a guy who keeps himself skinny as a rail, despite a genetic tendency to obesity. He does this, and has done this for 25 years, by eating very austerely & RUNNING 9 MILES A DAY, rain or shine. But when age catches up with him & Robert can no longer run 9 miles, then the hard-coding will take over. Inside every such skinny person there is a fat person clamoring to get out. Which is eventually what happens. Not his fault. Not your fault. Not my fault. We are genetic “reprobates”, to express it Calvinistically. You can still exercise & refrain from eating everything that ain’t nailed down. That’s what I do. But if you are a “reprobate” — as I am — you have to do so with the consciousness that you will ultimately be defeated by “The Great Chromosome Tragedy”, like Oedipus in Sophocles’ plays. You can have short-term tactical victories, but the war has already been lost strategically.

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