Photo by Takver
“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems”
- Mahatma Gandhi
Getting stronger and fitter is an immensely powerful and rewarding process on a personal level. We can take that energy and ability and use it for even greater good and I am keen to explore – with you – ways of doing that.
Transition to what?
We are living in an age of transition, between a wasteful, energy-dependent, over-consumptive age and …well, we don’t quite know yet, but some kind of fall of civilisation is approaching – in fact it is probably already here.
As my favourite crash philosopher Ran Prieur comments, “It won’t be like falling off a cliff, more like rolling down a rocky hill. There won’t be any clear before, during, or after. Most people living during the decline and fall of Rome didn’t even know it.”
But what do we know? That food shortages, energy shortages, extreme weather, financial crises and massive migrations of people are just a few of the challenges we will be facing – are already facing – in the near future.
Those in charge tell us that if the system breaks down we will get anarchy and chaos, but in fact when the system fails us we tend to move closer together, create communities and find innovative ways to meet challenges.
This new society will require us to be more skilful, practical, adaptable and resilient. Physical strength and fitness is an important part of this resilience and the ability to cope with the inevitable changes (or improvements, if you prefer) in our lifestyle.
“…life will change less than the peak oilers are predicting, because we have so much room to cut out waste: to drive less often in more efficient cars, ride bicycles, turn off the heat and air conditioning, take the machines and industrial chemicals out of agriculture, stop flying food around the world. Gradually, more people will grow their own food, raise their own kids, tend their own health, do stuff with their own bodies instead of machines, and turn their attention from the stock market and TV characters to their more real lives. Those who can adjust mentally will recognize this as an improvement.”
- Ran Prieur
The functional fitness model is particularly well suited to a post-peak oil world: there’s no reliance on machines or heavy energy use; tools are homemade, equipment is simple; the movements are applicable to real life tasks; in fact the entire approach is about being strong and healthy, not just looking good.
Functional fitness tends to take place in small scale businesses such as garage gyms, involving local communities. There’s an emphasis on learning new skills, helping others and making progress, not an obsession with things being so easy that you switch off completely or simply follow like an automaton what an instructor tells you to do.
“Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general.”
- Mark Rippetoe
Functional fitness gives people strength, ability, confidence and independence from large scale systems, all of which are needed to build a new type of society. For me, functional fitness is strength. Strength is more important than endurance in a transitional age. I’d rather have the ability to pick up heavy, awkward objects than trot for ten miles.
I’m not dissing cardio endurance entirely, it all goes into the mix. But I’ve reached the point where the sight of millions of people fruitlessly pounding the pavements, who can’t even carry the equivalent of their own bodyweight across a car park, makes me want to jump up and down and possibly set myself on fire. Why hark back to a distant hunter-gatherer tradition when we don’t even have the ‘dad strength’ or ‘mum strength’ of the second world war generation?
Specialisation in terms of energy systems (long slow distance) is as counter-productive as any other type of specialisation. If you can run, that is fantastic. Now take the logical next step: pick up something heavy and run with that.
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
- Dr. Howard Thurman
There is a transition that takes place, from pursuing physical fitness for purely selfish motives to thinking about wider, altruistic motives. Selfish motives are a perfectly good place to start – perhaps it is even necessary to go through a self-centered process in order to get completely comfortable with your physicality (my friends at Bodytribe have examined this issue in the past), but I don’t think that’s where it ends.
Having identified functional fitness, and strength in particular, as being ideal attributes for the new world we are living in, how do we join all these new ideas together? How do we start to make a difference to our communities? If you have a passion for strength and fitness and if you care about what happens in and to our world, why not use the former to help the latter?
It can be as simple as doing a workout in aid of an issue you care about: my friends at Crossfit Reading organised a sponsored workout for Haiti last weekend. Or it can be a longer term project running low cost training sessions for the local community, like Chip Conrad does in Sacramento.
There are a number of issues that have caught my eye over the years and I want to start personally making a difference in these areas.
1. Strength bias
Governments and local authorities think they are making great strides in ‘health and wellbeing’, but from what I can see there is very little emphasis on resistance/strength training and functional fitness, and far too much emphasis on high impact cardio and – for want of a better term – pointless jigging about.
I’m part of FK.UK, an umbrella organisation for functional fitness in the UK and I hope that we can influence the agenda by making sure that sound and trustworthy information about strength training gets to as wide an audience as possible.
2. Strength equality
There’s still a real issue around social inclusion and strength ‘equality’. For anyone who isn’t a policy wonk, that means making sure that people who are disadvantaged or marginalised can still get the benefits of better strength and fitness. The functional fitness world appears to be very much a white middle class male pursuit at the moment – shouldn’t we take active steps to change this?
Strength in particular is a gender equality issue. Women haven’t had the same access to strength training that men have, nor is it nearly as socially acceptable for women to be strong as it is for men – and there’s no good reason why this should be the case. Quite frankly, we need all the strong people we can get!
Fitness professionals and governments alike persist in giving out wrong information to women about strength training. I’ve recently set up the Women’s Strength Training Network on Facebook to help combat this by supporting women who are already strength training and generate new ideas about how to get the messages out to a wider audience.
3. Sustainable food
It is important to link healthy eating with sustainable food and farming. Personally I put ready meals and battery farmed chicken in the same ‘utter crap’ category. I’ve stopped eating meat because I just don’t trust it any more. Even if you are careful only to buy free range chicken at the supermarket, for example, what happens when you go out to a restaurant – do you check the provenance of the meat there? I thought it was easier not to eat it at all.
The food industry is now so global, mechanised and industrialised that it is no longer possible to be a responsible citizen and ignore the politics of food production. Food and farming are a big part of climate change (impact of livestock farming on carbon emissions and potential food shortages due to the effects of climate change being two examples), environmental damage, animal welfare, people welfare (fair trade). Food security is as big a concern as energy security but the solutions are likely to come from communities getting together and deciding to do something about it.
So I want to know what you think about all of this. Do you link your fitness with broader aspirations in your life, and if so, how? Are there particular issues that the strength community can contribute to? How do you shape not just a new person but a new world?
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