The Runner and the Body

The runner and the body. In a certain sense, the two are one and the same: the runner has a body; he could also be described as being a body. The act of running and the body of the runner are inextricably linked. To explore this relationship would undoubtedly be a large task, one I could only hope to partially open within the confines of a blog post. That is why I want to discuss not the body as it is during the act of running but rather, the effects of running on the body and how these effects (or the anticipation of them) can spread their influence to the mind as well.

I don’t think anyone would deny that running is good for the body, though you could deny that it is many other things: namely, enjoyable or worthy of effort and time. I suppose I should also add a condition to the opening statement of this paragraph: running might be more destructive than good for the body that is already plagued with injury. But I see this as the exception rather than the rule. In its ideal and intended form, running brings much ‘good’ to the body. It increases fitness and health, reducing risk of illness through cardiovascular exercise. It also helps to trim and tone the runner’s physique. This last point is the one I want to flesh out a little (if I can be excused for my use of the pun).

Running does not just make the runner feel fitter; it likewise makes him look fitter. Is this a good thing? Taking the question at a fundamental level, I would answer ‘yes.’ Our culture would also answer yes, but perhaps in a different way, and with different implications. We are currently living in a time of great enthusiasm for self-improvement. This enthusiasm is not only seen in the idealized image of both the male and female body we find plastered in advertisements, in movies and on televisions screens. It has extended to a belief in the malleability of the human body. We are told that we need no longer be limited by our bodies (thus implying that our bodies are limitations on the spirit, the mind or some other intangible); if our body is not the way we want it to be, we can change it.

But we are blinded by our fervour for what I might call the “betterment potential,” and by our belief in perpetual progress, that technology and history are on a constant incline which moves irrevocably towards the good. This is an assumption, and a faulty one at that. Beneath the surface of the self-improvement narrative, things are a little more complicated. Our bodies are not infinitely malleable, and even if they were, this malleability would not come without negative consequences.

All this seems to drift very far away from our original topic, that of the effects of running on the body. With the goal in mind of bridging that gap, let us ask again the same question as earlier: Is it a good thing [to look fitter]? Again I would answer that it is. Yet this time I want to qualify that ‘yes,’ to add something onto it as an extension. The real problem (if there is indeed a problem) lies not in looking fitter but in the expectation of looking fitter. Let me explain what I mean. I’m not trying to say that it is wrong or harmful to want to look fitter or to improve our appearance. What I am saying is that it can become harmful if this expectation takes precedence over the other goods involved.

Running can help us to become healthier, to feel better, to look better, to relieve stress, etc. The activity of running, as I have tried to show in previous posts, is also beneficial to the mind and soul, and has the potential to be enjoyable and rewarding in many ways. Yet when the goal of physical self-improvement is positioned in the mind as the highest good, when this natural desire reaches a frenzied pitch of obsession, the other ‘goods’ slip out. In fact, we risk losing the intrinsic value of running and abandoning any true peace or joy gleaned from the pursuit.

I think this is a danger with any type of exercise (or any kind of quest for physical transformation). When our focus is wrapped up in visions of an improved version of our body, a lot of negative ideas can emerge and are endorsed as a result. One of them is that our value is derived from the way we look. With such a belief, a huge amount of power is given to the people around us, who are then able to validate us (or conversely, condemn us) through perception of an exterior, and comparison to external standards. It is easy to “get around” this problem by claiming we want to look good only for ourselves. But if we are exercising because we want to look good and if this is our primary purpose, then it really doesn’t matter whom we are doing it for. We are still acting in line with the idea that we are not good enough the way we are and must change in order to gain approval, even if it is our own.

So, is it possible to “get around” this obstacle, to enjoy the physical fruits of running and appreciate the way we look, without becoming a prisoner to the cult of self-improvement? I believe it is. Self-improvement should not be our primary concern; instead we can tether it to the higher goods and to the actual experience. And so if our appearance does change or “improve” in some aspect, it is the result of other goods, not the cause or the ultimate good itself, not the raison d’être. Then we can celebrate or appreciate our bodies freely without the pressure to continue moving upwards on that scale of progress, without that obsession with moving from better to better to a ‘best’ that does not really exist. There is too much subjectivity and diversity at play for there to be such a thing as a ‘best,’ an optimal version of self. If we spend all our time and energy searching for that elusive best, we will never find it; we will only miss the good while looking for something better.

I like that after running (and doing so regularly) I can notice a difference in my body, that I can see I am in better shape. I also like that I feel better after running, that I am stronger, more confident, rejuvenated, more at peace… I like the former set of goods, but I want to like the latter set more. I am glad of the former, but I want to run because of the latter. That’s what it really comes down to: the reason to run, and to take it further: the reason to do anything, the reason to be. If we find our identities or draw purpose from false sources, sources incapable of ever satisfying, then this reason and this ‘being’ become hollow. If, however, we put them in their proper place as secondary sources, and do not expect from them satisfaction or self-definition, we can be free: free from the roller coaster of self-improvement, because it really is a roller coaster (rather than an incline), and as with all rides of the like, it can only go so high before the fall.