What Five Philosophers Have to Say About Physical Exercise

Discover what some of the greatest minds in our history had to say about physical exercise and fitness in general.

Apr 29, 2024By Igor Zanetti, Student of Philosophy

philosophers physical exercise


Nowadays, physical exercise is more popular than ever. We have seen a surge in people’s interest in taking care of their bodies over the last few years, and such interest is clearly observable in social media. However, this attention to physical well-being is nothing new. Some of the most remarkable examples of this are the Olympics, first created in Ancient Greece, and Plato himself, who was given his famous nickname because of his large frame and notable physical prowess. If we stroll through the history of philosophy, how is this subject treated by different philosophers, philosophical schools, and zeitgeists?


1. Plato And Physical Exercise In The Republic

plato head bust
Head of Plato, mid-3rd century CE, Roman Empire. Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Ancient Greece is a civilization that is often associated with the practice of many forms of physical exercise. When people think about Greece, they think about the intense sports competitions of the Olympics or the born and raised soldiers of Sparta who underwent physical training throughout their whole lives, as well as the aesthetic physiques of their magnificent statues.


Plato is perhaps the most notable example of the relationship between philosophy and physical exercise. Originally named Aristocles after his grandfather, the philosopher was immortalized under the nickname Plato instead, as it refers to his big physique and great skill in wrestling—one of the most important sports in Ancient Greece.


Two key parts of Plato’s philosophy are found in his political perspectives shown in the Republic, and his Theory of Forms, which is brought up in many of the philosopher’s writings. If we take a closer look at these two pillars of Platonic philosophy, we are able to better understand the philosopher’s views on physical training.

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In the Republic, Plato lays the blueprint for what he believes to be an ideal society. The philosopher believed that physical training is an essential part of the education of citizens, not only because physically fit individuals are healthier and therefore more valuable assets to that society, but also because these practices can provide many other benefits such as promoting healthy competitions and developing teamwork among the citizens through sports. This teaches the people to have discipline and self-control, as well as establish a capable military force.


Moving on to the Theory of Forms, if we understand that the basic premise of the theory is the concept of things in our world being flawed reproductions of their perfect abstract Forms, it is easy to see how we can relate Plato’s philosophy to the realm of physical exercise. According to this theory, every form of physical practice, be it a competitive sport or the pursuit of a perfect-looking body, has its ideal counterpart in the realm of Forms. Through consistency and hard work, though never reaching perfection, we are able to come ever so closer to the ideal forms. Our bodies and how we move them are no exception to that: we should always have our eyes set on being the best version of ourselves.


2. Aristotle’s Virtue Through Balance

rembrandt aristotle with homer painting
Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, Rembrandt, 1653. Source:The Metropolitan Museum of Art


It would be unwise to visit Ancient Greek philosophy without mentioning Aristotle. Being both a student and a critic of Plato, Aristotle is another philosopher whose work our society is built upon. One of his most remarkable contributions is the concept of virtue through balance; meaning, that we should never aim for the extremes in our lives but rather for a middle ground instead.


According to Aristotle, our natural goal as humans is to reach a higher state of well-being, which the philosopher called eudaimonia. Such a state can only be reached through living a virtuous life, and if we consider that balance is a virtue, one cannot be completely fulfilled as a human being without tending to the many different aspects that constitute a well-balanced person, one of those aspects being the physical body.


There must be a balance between intellectual, spiritual, and physical practices if we wish to live a fulfilling life, in Aristotle’s perspective. Among every philosophical perspective concerning the practice of physical exercises, the Aristotelian approach is one of the most beneficial for us to apply to our lives, promoting self-improvement without the need to resort to extreme measures. We should not be sedentary scholars nor mindless brutes, and we should not use radical methods in order to achieve our goals.


This is a very important message considering the current state of the fitness industry, where it has become something normal for people to go above and beyond the natural limits of the human body. This has led people to consume endless amounts of poisonous substances in the pursuit of a perfect physique or a better performance, bringing permanent damage to their bodies and developing many psychological disorders as a result of going to such extremes.


3. Seneca And The Stoic Resilience

death of seneca painting
The Death of Seneca, Peter Paul Rubens, c.1614, via Museo del Prado


During the period of transition between the pinnacle of Ancient Greece and the dawn of the Roman Empire’s global domination, the Macedonian conqueror Alexander The Great was responsible for the dissemination of Greek culture and philosophy, as well as the incorporation of elements for other cultures of territories dominated by the ruler. That period of time is now known as the Hellenistic period, named after the spread of Ancient Greek culture all around the world.


The Hellenistic period was marked by a lot of turmoil derived from the sudden political and cultural changes brought upon the general population. In response to that unsettling reality, the Stoic philosophy was born, promoting a worldview that was based on self-control, resilience, and the ability to overcome hardships through mental strength.


Much like Aristotle, the stoic philosopher Seneca believed that balance and moderation were necessary for our self-improvement. According to him, we should seek to build some level of physical development, as a healthy body could better support a healthy mind—but never to the point of obsession.


However, the real value of the practice of physical exercises, in Seneca’s perspective, was the development of self-control, discipline, and endurance, which are the very pillars of Stoic philosophy. A hardened person is well-suited to face the adversities of the world around them, and athletic practices are a great way for a person to become stronger, both mentally and physically.


4. Arthur Schopenhauer’s View: Exercise As Escapism

johann schäfer arthur schopenhauer photo
Portrait photograph of Arthur Schopenhauer by Johann Schäfer, 1859. Source: WikiMedia.


Arthur Schopenhauer is a philosopher associated with pessimism, as in his perspective, life is an endless cycle of suffering derived from the frustration of wanting things that we cannot have and the boredom that results once we obtain what we have previously desired.


While Schopenhauer did recognize the value of having a healthy body on many occasions when it came to the general well-being of individuals, and even as a momentary escapism from the suffering of existence, his philosophy can also be interpreted as somewhat critical of the practice of physical exercises.


One of the most relevant influences that Schopenhauer took while developing his philosophical system was Buddhism, in particular, the perspective of the denial of the pursuit of our desires. Thus, we can interpret that the author’s perspective would be largely against competitive levels of physical exercise since our desires to have a good-looking body or to excel in a specific sport are ultimately nothing but sources of further suffering.


When analyzing such a broad subject under the scope of an even broader area that is philosophy, it is important to consider different points of view, and that is why Schopenhauer’s perspective is important in our analysis: because it is a unique take on the subject that brings further questioning to the discussion, moving it forward.


5. The Super-Human Of Friedrich Nietzsche

nietzsche profile photograph
A photograph of Friedrich Nietzsche in profile, 1882. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most notable and influential philosophers of the last couple of centuries, and his nihilistic views are scattered all around our society. His concept of Übermensch provides a unique perspective when it comes to the practice of physical exercise since a lot of the philosopher’s work is left to interpretation and is still being debated today.


What exactly is the Übermensch or Super-Human according to Nietzsche? While the concept is way too complex to be explained in a couple of paragraphs, we could tersely say that it is the next level of existence that people should try to reach. The Übermensch is set on a path of self-overcoming, self-discipline, and self-mastery. This Super-Human is not bound by the limits of traditions or dogmas, whether they be religious, political, or cultural.


Nietzsche did not elaborate on the development of the body specifically, but a core aspect of the Übermensch is something that we may relate to the practice of physical exercises. For example, a competitive athlete would have to constantly engage in self-overcoming, becoming better with each training session and breaking new records. Or, a bodybuilder would need a lot of self-discipline to follow the necessary training and nutrition protocols required to build an aesthetic physique, and so on.


The philosophy of the Super-Human is a philosophy of constantly breaking limits. If these limits are mental, physical, or even social, that is up to interpretation. The main point here is to always have the ambition to become more than you currently are.


Should You Exercise Your Body?

classic bodybuilders
Photographs of Bronze Era bodybuilders. Source: Men’s Health


The list of philosophers who have made direct or indirect mention of this subject matter is long, but analyzing the five points of view that have been explained in this article can give us a somewhat broad and diverse perspective on the relationship between philosophy and physical exercise.


There is not a simple answer here, but we may conclude with some level of certainty that most philosophers agree that exercising your body and living a healthy life are beneficial to any individual. Striving to become better every day is a great way to tackle life. We should always study more about the subjects that interest us, become better friends to our loved ones, and become more physically fit each day.


Pessimists like Schopenhauer will see the practice of physical exercises as nothing but a distraction, but authors such as Nietzsche and Plato agree that people should try to be the best version of themselves—and they make very strong arguments to support their perspectives, which we can balance with the fair warnings provided by Aristotle and Seneca about the dangers of going to extremes in that pursuit.

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By Igor ZanettiStudent of PhilosophyIgor is a contributing writer and student of Philosophy at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (Brazil). He has a long-standing passion for philosophy and all forms of art, from literature to modern genres.