Saturday, May 17, 2014

Complementary Virtues

How can physical fitness contribute to other virtues? Here's a primer:
Why CrossFit Is Great For Your Life, Not Just Your Body

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Vibram FiveFingers to Pay Millions

Continuing in the vein of personal responsibility and risk versus reward, Vibram will pay $3.75 million to runners who became injured after using their minimalist FiveFingers shoes. Having owned a pair of FiveFingers for over three years without injury, I wonder how many runners followed Vibram's advice for wearing their shoes:
"Running barefoot with a strong heel strike will send you to the sofa to let your bone contusion or fracture heal. One of the goals of Vibram FiveFingers footwear is to encourage forefoot striking, meaning your forefoot will contact the ground first then engage muscles in your feet and lower legs as your heel touches down." 
I would certainly expect to see "increases in bone marrow edema [the precursor to a stress fracture]" in heel-striking FiveFingers runners, as one study indicates. The real question is how many such injuries resulted from poor strength and/or improper running technique as compared to wearing a particular brand of shoe. And no, I don't wear my FiveFingers as a fashion statement, though they are quite comfortable.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


            Let me begin with a bit of terminology. In discussing virtues up to now, I have drawn a line between virtues of the self, such as intelligence, physical fitness and prudence, and what I have awkwardly referred to as other-directed, or social, virtues. Following Kieran Setiya,[1] I will continue to classify the positive qualities possessed by an individual as virtues, and use the term moral virtues to refer to other-regarding virtues and the term non-moral virtues to refer to self-regarding virtues. I do not intend any assignment of value through the words “moral” and “non-moral;” these are merely functional terms to categorize different types of virtues.
            And now, channeling the late George Carlin, I’d like to talk a little bit about yoga and Crossfit. Now yoga and Crossfit are different from one another in many rather interesting ways. First of all, yoga is an ancient Indian physical, mental and spiritual practice with roots in religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. Crossfit is a physical fitness philosophy founded in 2000 in the very mental and spiritual state of California. Yoga, like art, is practiced in a studio. Crossfit is practiced in a box, any old six-sided container that can hold a few humans, bars and weights. A yoga session includes soothing music, a meditative chant and rhythmic breathing. A Crossfit WOD (Workout of the Day) is accompanied by death metal and grunts of exertion. Yoga ends with shavasana, where you lie on your back, close your eyes and empty your mind. Crossfit ends when you collapse on the floor, close your eyes to keep the room from spinning and hear nothing but your heart throbbing in your brain. And finally the objectives of the two regimens. In yoga, the goal is improved physical and mental well-being. In Crossfit, the aim is…exactly the same.
            At its inception, Crossfit became the first exercise regimen to explicitly define fitness: “increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains.”[2] In other words, the more work an individual can accomplish in any given amount of time, the more fit the individual. The fittest person will be capable of both deadlifting an incredibly heavy weight in a single second and qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Crossfit aims to improve fitness using constantly varied, high intensity, functional movements.[3] These movements include pushing, pulling and lifting external weights or one’s own bodyweight in rapid succession. Given the unpredictability and intensity of the workouts, Crossfit has garnered widespread appeal among military and law enforcement personnel who see its constantly varied challenges as reflections of their daily lives. Yet it has also grown popular with individuals seeking to reshape their bodies or improve overall wellness.
            And Crossfit works. In 2010, the United States Army assessed soldiers’ performance on the Army Physical Fitness test and three standard Crossfit workouts before and after six weeks of at least four one-hour Crossfit training sessions per week. Though the subjects varied in both fitness level and Crossfit experience, each one demonstrated improved work capacity over the course of the study. On average, the soldiers experienced a 20% increase in power between the initial and final assessments, even though the training sessions did not cater specifically to the movements tested.[4]
            On the flip side, Crossfit can be dangerous. Multiple people have suffered a condition called rhabdomyolysis during a Crossfit workout, a potentially fatal disorder caused when muscle fiber breaks down, is released into the bloodstream and poisons the kidneys. Of course, rhabdomyolysis is possible during any high intensity physical activity, such as marathon running[5] and military training.[6] Other Crossfitters have experienced pulled muscles and separated shoulders.[7] And Crossfit athlete Kevin Ogar became paralyzed when he dropped a 240 pound weighted barbell on his spine during a missed snatch at a competition in January.[8]
Then again, yoga can be dangerous as well. In a 2012 New York Times piece, yoga instructor Glenn Black claims “the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether. The article details a litany of injuries experienced during yoga practice, including ruptured disks, broken ribs, torn Achilles tendons and even cerebral damage. Black himself underwent surgery to treat spinal stenosis caused by years of backbends and deep spinal twists. Because many people who dive into yoga have underlying physical weaknesses and instabilities, Black says that “yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.”[9]

             Of course, many everyday practices carry the possibility of danger. Driving is an obvious example of an activity that may result in serious injury or death. And even though I feel comfortable navigating the streets of Chicago or American interstates, I don’t plan to get behind the wheel in a NASCAR race anytime soon. Likewise, I won’t be doing the Crossfit workout “King Kong” in the near future, because I can’t deadlift 455 pounds as the WOD prescribes. And I don’t expect to do a headstand without hands in a yoga class at any point in my life. Nearly every significant decision in life requires us to balance risk with reward. Both yoga and Crossfit exemplify that trade-off. The sense of personal responsibility is paramount to both disciplines. At the most basic level, one engages in either with the sole aim of improving her own capabilities.
Yoga and Crossfit also share many of the same approaches to improving fitness. They both rely heavily on basic bodyweight movements such as push-ups, squats and lunges. Both emphasize balance and coordination. Both focus on attaining flexibility with complete functional range of motion through a strong, stable joint. And perhaps most significantly, yoga and Crossfit both require the individual practitioner to understand his own capabilities even as he explores and tests their limits. These activities are challenging, they are risky, but facing these risks within one’s own capacities and overcoming the challenges they pose are precisely what make them so rewarding.
The shared senses of personal responsibility and self-improvement also differentiate yoga and Crossfit from obviously competitive sports like basketball. There is no overt competition in yoga (although I suspect most novice yogis have secretly wished they could do some wild arm balance as well as their teacher or the yogi on the mat next to them). And though Crossfit employs competition between participants by timing workouts, measuring weight lifted and tracking progress, it does so with the aim of getting the most out of each individual athlete. Even at the Crossfit Games, the Olympics of Crossfit, competitors who complete the workout first cheer on their opponents as they battle to finish. Unlike basketball, competition (where it exists) in yoga and Crossfit is a means to the end of individual fitness. In basketball and other competitive sports, competition is the end and besting one’s opponent the ultimate goal. As I suggested last month, it is not hard to suspect that other values are subordinated to this end in the heat of competition.
            Of course, we should not take this comparison to mean that yoga, Crossfit and other approaches to personal fitness always go right, or that basketball and other competitive sports always go wrong. Keeping in mind the overall goal of defining the relationship between moral virtues and fitness and other non-moral virtues, I want to explore the attitudes that contribute to success across these sets of virtues. We have seen how yoga can help rehabilitate individuals convicted of crimes and how basketball can lead to outbursts of violence. My aim in this piece was to connect the virtues of yoga with those of an apparent polar opposite in Crossfit. Given the similarities between these disparate approaches to physical fitness, I expect the same similarities to exist in fitness philosophies in the middle of this spectrum. And by contrasting these shared qualities with the aims of competitive sports, I hope to better explain some of the successes associated with yoga and personal fitness and the downfalls associated with basketball and competitive sports.

[1] Setiya, Kieran. Reasons Without Rationalism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 2.
[2] “What is Crossfit?” Crossfit. 2014. Online. 26 Apr. 2014.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Maj. Jeffrey Paine, Maj. James Uptgraft and Maj. Ryan Wylie. “Command and General Staff College Crossfit Study.” United States Army, May 2010. Online. 25 Apr. 2014.
[5] Kinesiology Department, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts. “Exertional rhabdomyolysis and acute renal failure in marathon runners.” Sports Med, 2007: 37 (4-5). Online. 28 Apr. 2014.
[6] Alpers, J.P. and Jones, L.K. Jr. “Natural history of exertional rhabdomyolysis: a population-based analysis.” Muscle Nerve, 2010:42(4). Online. 28 Apr. 2014.
[7] Cooperman, Stephanie. “Getting Fit, Even if It Kills You.” The New York Times. 22 Dec. 2005. Online. 26 Apr. 2014.
[8] McKinght, Michael. “Paralysis of CrossFit Competitor Elicits Outpouring, Concern Over Safety.” 24 Jan. 2014. Online.
[9] Broad, William J. “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” The New York Times. 5 Jan. 2012. Online. 27 Apr. 2012.