by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 28, 2018
I’ve always been doubtful about the concept of free will. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become a complete skeptic. If we had free will would anyone be fat? If we had free will would anyone be self-destructive? Maybe I lack free will and other people have it because some people always do the right thing. Or maybe, those people who succeed have other internal motivating factors pushing them. For example, it could be all those men and women who faithfully work out at the gym are compelled by relentless mating impulses and not free will.
I have found that pain is an effective but imperfect motivator. I have chronic back pain. I also have clogged arteries. Both will nag me incessantly if I don’t eat and exercise properly. Chest pain and shortness of breath is a wonderful motivator, but I inconsistently obey its commands. Immobilizing back pain will also get my attention but I don’t always listen. In both cases, I do just enough to get those two nags off my case. Why don’t I do more?
If I truly had free will I’d exercise regularly and diet until I got down to a healthy weight. Intellectually I know making those choices could rid me of my pain burdens and even give me freedoms I haven’t had in years. So, why don’t I do what needs to be done? Obviously, a lack of free will.
Other folks might say its a lack of willpower, but I disagree. I say free will is where willpower should come from. Let me use an example.
I have spinal stenosis which causes numbness in my leg that can lead to back pain. I also have some bad discs in my lower spine that can cause dull back pain. And if I let both get out of hand I get tight muscles in my lower back that causes very sharp back pains. I can’t handle anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs. If I eat a healthy diet I can keep my inflammation in check and reduce the numbness in my leg down. If I exercise and maintain a symmetrical posture for sitting and sleeping I can keep my discs happy. If I do both I don’t experience muscle pain. It’s like walking a tightrope.
My doctors have always told me my spinal stenosis would get worse but I’ve been able to keep it in check by faithfully following my diet, doing physical therapy exercises, and working out on my Bowflex machine. I’ve been doing this for years, and have kept the numbness and pain to a minimum. It never goes away completely, but I keep it at a level I consider okay.
Everyone once in a while I’ll rebel and skip a day or two of exercising. I just want to have a vacation from my routine. But it always costs me. If I vacation too long I pay severely where I’m laid up using heating pads and taking drugs that upset my stomach. Interrupting my routine starts a downward spiral and I have to fight hard to regain control.
Recently I took a vacation, lost control, and couldn’t get it back. I thought I’d finally reach the point where things would get worse like my doctors told me. That was depressing. I had to take drugs that totally tore up my stomach. At which point I had to stop taking the drugs. I figured I had to do something different. I remember I had started doing Miranda Esmonde-White exercises last year and they helped.
Here’s the thing. When I feel good I do less to help myself. If I had free will I would always know never to stop doing what’s good for me. I don’t decide to do right because of my willpower or free will, I do it because of pain. At least I respond to pain. I know people who don’t. They do nothing to help themselves and just suffer.
My current free will crisis is the knowledge that doing the Miranda Esmonde-White exercises is the best thing I’ve done for my back in years. In fact, for a few days, I felt no pain whatsoever. That was remarkable. Of course, the first thing I did when this happened was to start eating bad food and skipping my exercising. And the pain came back.
The Miranda Esmonde-White classical stretch exercises showed me that I had a lot of tight muscles I wasn’t stretching in my normal physical therapy exercises, and when I loosened them up my back felt wonderful. I could sit with my legs crossed. I could slouch while sitting. I could sit in chairs that usually hurt my back.
I’ve been doing episode 1003 (Season 10, third episode) “Spine Stretch for Posture” daily since January 1st – 28 days in a row. There are 29 other episodes in the Season 10 DVD set I bought. Intellectually, I know if I systematically did more Miranda Esmonde-White episodes I might get much better. Yet I can’t make myself try them. I’ve been faithfully doing episode 1003 every day because it keeps the pain at bay but I can’t push myself to do more. Why?
Free will is an iffy concept. But I think of it this way. I don’t believe in souls, but let’s use the concept of a soul as an illustration. Think of the body as an automobile and the soul as the driver. I would say free will is the ability of the soul to decide where to drive the car. I don’t believe in souls or free will because our conscious and unconscious minds are completely integrated into our bodies. They can’t be separated. My conscious mind is only a fraction of the whole. Evidently, my body and unconscious mind also want to drive.
If we had free will we’d have complete say over our body and unconscious mind. At least that’s my theory. Sometimes I think my conscious mind can trick the other two.
My body and unconscious mind don’t like eating healthy or exercising. They constantly try to con me to quit being good and doing what they want. But I’ve learned that I can fool them by repetition and conditioning. I’ve been able to muster up enough free will and willpower to make myself do episode 1003 every day this month. Sometimes its a struggle. I’ve discovered it helps to do it first thing in the morning. I just tell myself I can’t do anything fun until I do my Miranda exercises.
At first, it was really hard. My muscles were tight, I lacked the stamina. And the exercises seems confusing to my uncoordinated ways. I can’t dance because I can never remember the steps. So following Miranda always feels clumsy. Even after doing this routine 28 times I still struggle to remember the order of the exercises. This is another revelation about my lousy memory. At first, I thought it might be another sign of aging, but then I remembered I’ve never been able to remember song lyrics or melodies, even to songs I’ve heard a thousand times.
I’m reminded of Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. He started out with eight, but eventually added a ninth, but others have suggested even more mental abilities. Free will or lack of free will might be due to a combination of ability levels.
My solution has been to relax and just go along with the DVD. Over 28 days I’ve gotten much better at following Miranda’s moves, and even learning routines I hated. And the routines I hated were always the ones I had the most trouble following. But persistence has paid off. I realize Miranda was right, stretching all my muscles helps do the routines and erases my chronic pains.
Now, you’d think learning this powerful lesson would allow my free will to decide to do the right thing every day. It doesn’t. It’s a constant struggle. I resent giving up those 23 minutes. My unconscious mind and body like total freedom to be lazy and wanton. They hate that my conscious mind is always wanting to do something that requires discipline. For my whole life, I’ve hated to put anything on my calendar. Even if it’s something fun and exciting like a great concert.
My conscious mind is trying to fight this though, to trick my unconscious mind and body. I keep thinking if I could only remember the Miranda Esmonde-White routines I could do them throughout the day during odd moments. They say sitting is this new smoking, so doing something every hour would be great for my overall health. And, I wouldn’t feel like I have to follow a set routine. The trouble is I can’t remember the routines. Oh, I can remember them in a haphazard way, but I really need to be organized and stretch every set of muscles through the day.
Part of the problem is I follow the routines visually and I have a very poor visual memory. I wish each routine had a name. I’ve thought about watching all 30 episodes and trying to create a total list of routines and give each a name to memorize. And then work to condition my unconscious mind and body to do a few routines each hour during the day. That might fool them I’m not having to dedicate myself to regular exercising period.
I’d love to give up having to exercise every morning before I can start my day. I hate losing an hour to a scheduled routine. I tell myself if I would stop once an hour and do a few minutes of stretching I’d end up exercising more and I might be able to give up the morning routine and even the Bowflex machine. Miranda claims her stretches is all the exercising an older person needs, and that might be true. I feel like I stand taller, have better posture, and have more strength in my arms.
Which brings us back to free will. If I had a choice this is what I want. (Well, what I really want is to eat anything I want, never exercise at all, and still be healthy.) If I had free will I should be able to say, “This is something that works and I’ve decided to do it.”
Getting old is a pain in the ass. Wearing out is a pain in the ass. I recognize I must work harder and harder to maintain my dwindling vitality and wellbeing is just how it’s going to be. I just wish I had the free will to do what I need to do without having to fight sloth and gluttony.
8 thoughts on “Free Will and Exercise”
Oh James! You know yourself so well. I am entranced and distressed by your dilemma, and mystified by your decision to pin it all on free will, which is an ancient theological concept like “soul”, meaningless in the light of modern brain science and psychology and now an attractive metaphor, no more. On a practical note: I recommend you do name 2-3 M E-W movements and either draw a diagram for each or write them as a tiny story to remind you. Think small. And hey, days are long, life is long! Good luck.
Thanks, I’ll need all the luck I can get. Robert A. Heinlein said luck was only good preparation.
Like I said Rachel, I don’t believe in either the soul or free will. But somehow we have to overcome bad habits with good thinking. I’m making fun of the idea, I hope. Or maybe I’m just spitting into the wind.
Now that I’ve gotten comfortable with episode 1003 I’m going to try and learn another one. I’m very impressed with Miranda Esmonde-White. Do you know her work?
With the free will fantasy you demonstrated some muscle-growing mental contortions. At the other extreme I love the Tiny Habits habit and that works for me. Thanks for introducing me with Miranda E-W. Her approach makes a lot of sense. I’ve always known that daily tai chi has kept arthritis at bay, and suspected the reason was that in tai chi you move every joint in every direction. But I’d never do it if I didn’t do it as a daily habit. Tiny habits: works for me!
That’s my approach Rachel, working on developing tiny habits. I do make changes over time. I fail a 1,000 times, but I also try 1,001 times.
A wonderful strategy.
The age old question. If I know what is good for me, why can’t I just do what I need to do, and be done with it. Well the illusion of free will is alive and well in each of us, and its not going away anytime soon.
Self awareness has cursed us with the notion of free will. We have led ourselves to believe that we are able to initiate independent action by just thinking about same. This notion is so pervasive that we accept, or believe this to be true without hesitation. The notion of free will is so intuitive to all humans that we pay no mind to the possibility that it is all part of the illusion created by our self awareness.
For those of us who can spend an inordinate amount of time at a fitness center or even in our own basements. I tip my hat and consider them lucky to have a brain this is wired to that type of motivation and discipline. By the same token we all have certain ‘gifts’ provided for in each of our own unique genetic codes. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t be here to have this conversation in the first place. If the threat,…as in a premature death owing to lack of physical fitness or undue stress dealing with chronic pain, is not imminent, than the brain will tend to ignore the physical effort required (expenditure of resources with no immediate payback). At least this is what the folks in the disciplines of biology anthropology and anthropogeny are positing.
It’s our fate to suffer the reflection produced by our conscious awareness. To question everything. Maybe we just acknowledge our limitations, and go along with the ride. My brain is telling me I need to get back on the road soon and begin training for 2 X 75 mile bike competitions this fall. I’m optimistic that I can muster the dedication needed to go through the training regime required to make a go of it. There are no guarantees, however I remain optimistic
( A trait I inherited from my father) Good luck with your pursuit 🙂
brgcorbett, you obviously have more free will than I do if you can bike 2 x 75 miles. You remind me of my brother-in-law who lost 110 pounds after his heart attack by taking up biking. He eventually worked up to 100-mile trips. I’m just not wired that way. But I envy people who are.
Many a slip twixt the cup and the lip…
Heinlein was right about luck and preparation up to a point-only thing is, how do you know that your preparations will match up with your future opportunities? That’s where a little luck comes in handy. My experience has been that by the time you really know what questions you need to ask it’s too late to matter, at least when you’re trying to get established in life.
A lot of self help types have promoted visualization, both as a motivation aid and as mental practice runs. Unfortunately, I’m good enough at visualization to feel as if I’ve really experienced something – including psychological satiation, but without any real-world results. Never actually getting around to things is a great time saver though. In the short run, anyway.
Aren’t there some smartphone apps that nag you to get things done? Personally, I don’t carry a phone everywhere, nor even own a smartphone, so I can’t comment. I’d think that what is essentially a fancy alarm clock would be easy to ignore, but would a really good AI be more effective? Sort of a wearable personal trainer?