Fitness Lessons From The Ancient World

Fitness Lessons From The Ancient World

Let’s discuss the virtues of the philosophies of Stoicism. How can we use wisdom from the ancient world to improve our approach to physical training?


What Is Stoicism?


Stoicism is an ancient philosophy which originated over 2000 years ago from the workings of the Stoic, Socrates.

Epictetus was also a Stoic philosopher who spent the first part of his life in Greece and later relocated to Rome (55-135 AD.)

Seneca and Cicero of Rome discovered Epictetus and this eventually leads to him being welcomed with open arms by Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor.

Stoicism seems to be hidden away from the mainstream conversation. The fundamental principles of this philosophy have provided large contributions to modern ethics and Christianity. It has affected our military strategy and society throughout the modern world.

As a Greek kid, I grew up understanding the significance the ancient world had on our modern civilisation. I want you to grasp the beauty of what I understood as a child.

History is not stuck in the past, it carries and transcends us in the present moment and beyond.

The discoveries, minds and thoughts that existed before us shape who are today and least they be forgotten.

Understand and appreciate the merit in learning about Stoicism, not only in this writing but in life. To ignore our foundations will disadvantage you.


The Stoic Philosophy


The East has Buddhism and the West has Stoicism. My point is that Stoicism goes much deeper than having a few morals to live by, it goes further beyond some sort of analysis on emotion. It is an analogy for life, teaching us the complex nature of our physical, daily reality.

Stoicism seems to have a reputation for being cold, distant and a practice that places the attitude of negativity in a positive light.

This stereotype is far from the truth and misrepresents the good Stoicism gives to one. Stoicism isn’t an ‘opinion on emotion’, rather is a form of therapy, it is a tool to shape the perspective of the world in the most favourable one possible.

With this philosophy, you can live the best life by making the right decisions to face challenges in life head on in a life which is mostly unfair.


Stoicism On Physical Training


Stoicism is a philosophy, but the stoics did not dismiss the fact that our physical bodies equip our minds and shouldn’t be ignored.

The stoics did not prioritise physical training but their mindset and attitude towards it can give us a lot of wisdom on what it takes to master our physical performance.

Physical problems can arise from neglect of the physical body and this can interfere with one’s ability to fully actualize potential cognitive capabilities.

Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher speaks about the body here:

Since a human being happens to be neither soul alone nor body alone, but a composite of these two things, someone in training must pay attention to both. He should, rightly pay more attention to the better part, namely the soul, but he should also take care of the other parts, or part of him will become defective. The philosopher’s body also must be well prepared for work because often virtues use it as a necessary tool for the activities of life.

Musonius further elaborates on his view of how we treat our body and discusses the importance of abstention of the body. This is intentionally enduring discomforts such as cold, heat and anything out of normal comfort.


Proof Of Growth


Epictetus broke his leg when he was a slave. He was not an athlete, nor did he compete in the Olympics. What he did do is provide us with a great insight into how the Stoics saw the physical body and performance and how one should train to be most effective.

Let’s look at Book 1.4 from the Discourses.

The Stoics believed progress in philosophy is not determined by how many books you have read, or even have many books you have written.

Rather progress is determined by the outcome we see, the results, the true visible changes we examine in one’s life, these are not only exclusive to the external, they can be introspected changes, but a change must actually occur for progress to be true.

Choices, habits, routines, words and actions these are what determine whether progress in philosophy have been made.

The same can be applied to our physical attributes. Epictetus claimed that to see one’s philosophy on physical training one must look at that person’s shoulders, rather than the equipment they use or the frequency they train.

To relate this to our era: our training programs, diets, everything in the fitness industry is too abundant, there’s too much legion with new things being brought out all the time and not enough progress which is the original reason for a lifestyle of fitness, right?

Proof of growth is the point, not only in the physical growth of muscles, or the atrophy of fat. We must remember it is also the neurological and nervous-adaptation which occur I the body allowing us to perform with more strength and ability in sports and physically stressful situations. The aesthetic pursuits should not be one’s sole pursuits. Balance is best, depending on your goals.

Being able to endure more, physically adopt more resilience to stress and exert yourself by means of examination of your immediate and long-term results will get you further according to the Stoics.

I wholeheartedly agree with this, if you have read and understand anything about fitness you know that besides all the great anectodal and even scientific advice out there it all comes down to you. Our bodies, our DNA, our chemistry, circumstances are all unique and nobody no matter what their qualifications will understand what works best for you.


Rationalise Your Results


Don’t believe the arbitrary information or opinions on what works and what doesn’t. Listen to your results.

You must decide what sort athlete you want to be.

I believe any man must adopt a solid base of strength to work with, as Socrates once said it’s a shape to grow old without seeing the capability of your body as a man. We mustn’t ignore our capacity to increase our endurance, but strength is a great place to start if you have no clear direction in your athletic pursuits.

We mustn’t ignore our capacity to increase our endurance, but strength is a great place to start if you have no clear direction in your athletic pursuits.

Strength is quantifiable and gives you the perfect opportunity to develop your physical body but also understand how to interpret results as numbers.

Strength progression is logical and somewhat consistent in nature.


Seneca’s Weakness And Weapon


High-intensity interval training otherwise known as HIIT seems to be looked at as a new discovery in physical performance and results, but the opposite is true. Seneca described similar performance enhancing principles in his descriptions on wasting time.

Seneca had a tough life in his youth, suffering from asthma as did his father. It seemed his lack of physical prowess depressed him. Seneca had contemplated suicide multiple times, but this reality of his became fantasy out of compassion for his father’s mental well-being.

The point is his experience weakness physically pushed him to achieve what nobody thought he could.

Seneca became persistent in his harsh training regiment and proceeded to ‘correct’ his weakness and cultivate a body that was strong and athletically competent. He achieved this through practices such as extremely cold swimming.

Out of his experience in fighting against his natural inclination to being a weak man he became wise and talked about efficiency in training.

I think this example is a very powerful in explaining why you must consider carefully who you are trusting with advice.

Would you take the advice of somebody naturally gifted at painting, or somebody who was average, but years of effort, failure and even harsh criticism they became as good as the person naturally gifted?

It goes the same for Seneca and his lack of natural aptness for the physical. Through his efficiency in training and dedication, he understands the route to success in that particular field better than many who surpass his ability ever will.

Seneca’s doctrine, I guess you could say, is to never waste too much time on training your body. A Stoic’s main priority is the training and contemplation of philosophy of the mind.

And to some extent he’s right, efficiency is generally the best route for anything in life, not only to achieve the desired result better but to save valuable time and use it elsewhere.


Time And Effort


You want to put in the least amount of time and effort for the biggest results. Short, simple and time efficient exercises are what is recommend, to jump explosively, run extremely fast and lift heavy weights with maximal effort is what will create worthy shoulders.

It is the brief moments of full exertion where you are able to push your body past its perceived limit and pass through plateaus and explore new territory of physical capability.

Think minimalism but for your training. The more time you save the more time you can spend doing other things in your life which mean more experiences.


The Civilian


Clearly, if you are a soldier in a military force your body must be up to par with standards ready for conflict and war. The man limit physically is tested in its capacity during moments in war, this is clear.

If you’re reading this you’re a civilian, maybe you are or were in the military, but chances are you are a civilian. You are part of normal society and you work, you are immersed in the culture of societal function.

Those in war, needed the physical condition of their bodies to be perfect at all times, not only so they can do what they need to do but as a service to their fellow soldier.

Everyone must be in perfect condition for the entire team going to war to come back together once again as a team.

I guess this urgency and need to actualize one’s fullest potential physically is lost as an ideal as we don’t actually need it.

We look better and may have more success in our careers and persona relationships of we are physically appealing and fit but it’s not a requirement, you don’t need it to survive.

When this need and urgency is lost we start to experience burdens such as obesity in society, we get too comfortable and although we may not require this level of physical performance to live a normal life the entire objective is completely lost.


The Human Organism


In this circumstance, we may lose the point that civilians physical competence are critical to the very essence of what we require as a biological organism to live with longevity and an abundance of health.

Think of society as a living organism, each one of us is a bacteria that makes up and dictates the health and function of society and the human population.

We need to be healthy, have good circulation, be strong, fit free from obesity and be abundant in feel-good chemicals lime dopamine and serotonin, from the natural source of it in order to optimise not only ourselves but the ‘orgasm’ of humans’.

As for Plato and Aristotle who came before the philosophy of Stoicism also saw temperance of in relation to ourselves as something which the body is not excluded from.

To have temperance means to moderate what we consume and likewise what we exert, doing so without the needed burden of wasted energy.

Simply most suffer from self-inflicted ignorance, ignorance in intentionally ignoring what we instinctively know is good for our bodies, so much so to the point where we believe our lies ourselves.




Yes, you can argue that civilian fitness and physical shape is more a matter of self-indulgence, virtue and a privilege.

There’s always a level of recommendation when it comes to strength, food intake, health, drugs, there never is a solid requirement that must be met and because of this as I explained before we experience the generalised and ever growing popularity of chronic laziness and obesity.

So it remains one’s own responsibility to care for the body. It comes down to the virtues of the individual not the requirement of them. Now, this may be sounding overly negative and leaves no hope for the human race.

The way to look at this, especially if it affects your own virtue is to take a simple lesson from the Stoics.

This lesson or rather mindset is that we have more sovereignty than. In any sphere of our lives, we have had complete dominion over the result, don’t deny this as its power when accepted is useful, to say the least.

The overlying stoic view can sometimes be difficult to fully take in and accept.

You cannot eliminate how others perceive you and you caring towards this, you cannot deprive yourself and train so hard that


Adapt and Improve


What we can take away from the Stoic perspective on physical exercise is that we shouldn’t fret and become disappointed and trusted if our attempts to not succeed the first time, this is going to help us succeed in the future.

This goes the same for the literally stress you put on your body in physical exercise, strength training not only does our body and muscle fibres physically adapt and improve so that we can lift more weight the next time or run faster.

Our mind cultivates the ability to understand what works and what doesn’t and what synapses to create I the brain to further go improvement in the foreseeable future.

The point is adversity is what is contingent to continued progression and it is something to embrace and accept rather than be distasteful towards.

Maybe you find this point redundant and failure is the key to success is something that you are sick of hearing.

The truth is the most important concepts, philosophies and virtues in life must be repeated over and over not only so they are understood in a logical sense but so they are ingrained into our subconscious as a requirement for success.

Be persistent in your effort to cause the most pain and fatigue in the shortest amount of time, be efficient and understand the message Epictetus was trying to get across.

You must focus and put your attention o the results your actions are causing rather than the mechanisms of the actions themselves, this is how you adapt and improve constantly.

Suppose, for example, that in talking to an athlete, I said, “Show me your shoulders,” and then he answered, “Look at my jumping weights.” Go to, you and your jumping weights! What I want to see is the effect of the jumping weights. –  Epictetus, Discourses, I, 4 [1]


Take Away Message


Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping…But whatever you do, come back quickly from body to mind. –  Seneca, Epistle 15

And if you form the habit of taking such exercises, you will see what mighty shoulders you develop, what sinews, what vigour…. –  Epictetus, Discourses, II, 19

The lessons Stoics offered for the military are not exclusive to them, for civilians the message is as relevant as it could ever be.

We must cultivate the ability to be able to control ourselves in the presence of temptation no matter how strong this presence is.

Resist to eat the food you know isn’t going to help you on your journey to self-mastery. Resist the temptation to exercise in a manner less efficient because it is easier for you in the short term.

Do what is necessary, focus on the results you are getting and plan your future actions, changes and experienced improvements on the basis of results.

Our society is set up in a way where there’s no ‘requirement to get fit’ it’s a privilege and thus human nature tends to fail at its core resulting in obesity epidemics and pro laziness, resist the urge to give into what contemporary appetite has fueled.

Fight for your own virtue as a civilian and take care of the machine which is your body.

Exercise isn’t everything, the body is important but at te end of the day the mind is the priority, work your body, kill it in your training sessions, build the integrity of your muscles and endurance but only do so to further compliment the growth of your minds.

Don’t let physical training consume you. Instead, do what needs to be done in the most efficient manner and allow yourself to use your time in pursuits, spiritual, philosophical and intellectual.

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