That Time Kant Inspired Me to Exercise
I may be one of the only people in the world who has been inspired to be better friends with my body by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. During my dissertation research, I spent a lot of time reading and researching Kant’s Lectures on Pedagogy. (There’s a point to this, I promise.)
Kant sometimes has the reputation for being a grumpy moralist who is not concerned about emotions or pleasure. Therefore, for the person familiar with this view of Kant, it can come as a surprise that in the middle of his Lectures on Pedagogy, Kant has a lovely section in which he rhapsodizes at length about the benefit of children engaging in all manner of games such as blindman’s bluff, swinging, spinning tops, gymnastics, and kite flying, In reading this section, you get the impression that Kant is really, really serious about kids being able to play, be outside, and have adventures.
If you read another one of his books, his Metaphysics of Morals, you will soon see that this emphasis on play in Lectures on Pedagogy is no accident. Kant writes, “Cultivating the powers of the body (gymnastics in the strict sense) is looking after the basic stuff (the matter) in a human being, without which he could not realize his ends.“
At first it may not be clear what this quote has to do with playing, adventures, or bodies. However, it will be helpful if you know that Kant believes every person is irreplaceable and valuable in his or her self , and the purpose of morality is for everyone to bring their own unique moral projects into the world. These moral projects are goals and desires we have that help us develop our talents and abilities fully. We do this in a way that also allows other people to develop their talents and abilities fully.
Because I knew all this about Kant and his philosophy, a light went on in my mind when I read his quote on exercise. I thought, “Wait a minute…Kant is saying we should exercise and play because it allows us to show up more powerfully as ourselves in the world.”
This was a revolutionary concept for me, and it is one of the things that transformed how I look at my body and at all health-related endeavors. We are often told through the media and other influences in our life that the purpose of our body is to get attention and approval from others—to impress them. And all of this is often turned into a competition—Who can look the best? Be the most beautiful? Get the most attention? I will call this view of our bodies the Approval and Attention View of our bodies.
The Approval and Attention View puts us at war with our body. We constantly scrutinize it for imperfections. This causes us to be anxious, insecure, depressed, and sometimes filled with self-loathing.
Over the last six or seven years, I realized how much, in my teen and young adult life, I got caught up in the Attention and Approval View, and I also realized how harmful it was to me. Various influences in my life, like reading Kant, have taught me how to give up this game. In its place, I have learned that my body is one of my most cherished friends that works with me to bring more of my unique power and goodness into the world. I call this view of my body the Ally View.
While I have been moving towards the Ally View for a while now, I have especially done so in the last year and a half. I believe anyone can develop an Ally View of his or her body. Here are some of the thoughts and practices that have helped me, and they may help you, too.
One: Listen more, judge less
As I have started thinking of my body as an ally, I stopped worrying as much about what others think of it, and I started thinking more about what it needs and how I can help it. This means I spend a lot more time listening to my body and a lot less time judging it.
Of course, I have bad days like anyone else and still find myself judging my body or appearance, but I usually catch myself now when I begin to judge my body harshly. Usually I respond to my judging in an objective, neutral way and say, “Oh, that is interesting, I am judging my body a lot right now. I wonder why?” And then I follow this up by asking my body, “What do you need? How can I show love to you?”
I have been pleasantly surprised at the interesting and cool things that happen when I stop judging my body and start listening to it. I will tell you about a few of them in the next couple of items because I believe they apply to everyone, not just me.
Exploration: For the next week or two, practice listening to your body rather than judging it. When you find yourself judging it, you can say “Oh, interesting, I see that I am judging my body.” Remaining neutral and objective in this way can help you disengage from judging thoughts and let go of them more easily. Then, follow up your observation with this question to your body: “What do you need? How can I help you right now and be a better friend to you?”
Two: Breathe deeply to listen and show yourself love.
When I began listening to my body more carefully instead of judging it, one of the things I immediately realized was that I was having a lot of problems breathing properly. I don’t have asthma or any medically diagnosed problems with breathing, but in the last few years, I have gone through some times of intense stress because of finishing my PhD, applying for jobs, and starting a new position.
As a result of stress and anxiety, I had developed shallow breathing patterns and was breathing mainly in my chest instead of my diaphragm. This is a problem a lot of people have. Shallow breathing can cause more anxiety, and it can cause foggy thinking and low energy, to name a few problems.
When I realized I was having breathing problems, I started taking ten deep breaths, three times a day. Almost immediately I had more energy, clearer thoughts, and a bunch of other cool things also started happening. I have continued my breathing practice all this year. I have become convinced that breathing deeply and well is essential to becoming an ally to our body because it is one of the primary ways we listen to our body instead of judging it. It is also one of the primary ways we communicate love and support to ourselves.
Exploration: For today and tomorrow, gently observe yourself. How is your breathing? Is it deep and steady? Slow and erratic? Consider adopting a simple breathing practice this month: Every day, three times a day for a month (like in the morning, afternoon, and evening), sit or lie down and take ten, deep breaths. I like to think of my breath work as a Banquet of Breathing. I breathe slow and savor every breath, as though it is a delicious bite of food. If you feel like it, write me here at the end of the month and tell me how your breathing practice went. I would love to hear about it.
Three: Move to shine your light rather than shrink yourself.
Shortly after I began listening to my body better and breathing deeply and consistently, I realized that I wanted to get outside and walk more. Several things, including Kant, helped me to realize (really remember) that the purpose of moving is not to shrink ourselves but to shine our light more brightly in the world.
This new view made me excited to exercise again, and the more I listened to my body, the more I heard it saying something like, “I need to move more because I am made to move—not to be stationary.” So, I honored this need, and I started walking more.
And suddenly I realized that because I had been breathing better, I could walk long distances. For instance, I completely surprised myself several times by walking eight miles, then ten, and then fourteen miles. The furthest I had walked before this was about five miles.
Some researchers like Katie Bowman talk about nutritious movement. Moving is a nutrient we need just like other nutrients we get from our food, and the more we provide this nutrient for ourselves, the better ally we are to ourselves.
Exploration: What is an activity you enjoy for itself? It can be an activity you like to do now (or when you were a little kid) just because it was fun and playful—not because you are supposed to do it to lose weight or be healthy.
If you have never played physically or moved much (and that’s okay), what is an activity that sounds interesting to you? Feel free to consider unusual activities. For example, in addition to walking, I really like hula hooping, juggling, dancing, and swinging on swing sets (I have one outside). Whatever activity you choose, consider doing it once every day this month for as long or as short as you want. Try thinking about it as play and exploration. How does it make you feel? What do you enjoy about it? Are there other skills and activities you would like to try?
Four: Give yourself the gift of nature.
As I continued listening to my body and becoming an ally with it, I realized that I craved to be outside in nature. As I kept walking, I realized that I loved walking in the forest around water.
So, I began hiking more, and I found a nature sanctuary with a stream running through it near my house. I hike there all the time now. As I did this, I found myself doing things like climbing on trees, crossing creeks, and getting lost in the forest sometimes.
Doing these things allows my body and I to navigate challenges and overcome obstacles together, and this builds trust and teamwork. Our bodies thrive in natural and challenging environments. In fact, some doctors have begun writing nature prescriptions for their patients. You can read about this here.
The other day I went walking in a cemetery that had lots of big trees, singing birds, and a big lake.
Exploration: This week, pick a place outside that you would like to explore. It can be your neighborhood, a local park, a cemetery, or a local forest or hiking spot. Take a Turtle Walk there. A Turtle Walk is a walk in which you go as slow as you want. You also walk as long or short as you want. The goal is to look around and notice things that are interesting to you. What do you notice? What do you hear? What do you smell? What is something interesting you see? Consider going on a Turtle Walk in the same spot or different spots once or twice a week each week this month.
Five: Honor your story; it is unconditionally worthy
About eight years ago, I tore my calf muscle playing volleyball with my family. As a result, I was not able to walk regularly on this leg for about a year, and my left leg muscle atrophied a bit during this time. Probably not a lot of people would notice it, but I can tell that my left calf muscle and leg looks weaker and less muscular than the other one.
In addition, I have a scar on my right knee from when I crashed on my bike when I was in fifth grade. Like most people in the world, I also have cellulite and stretch marks. I also have a gap in my front teeth, and I have curly hair that gets wild and frizzy sometimes.
I mention all of this because in the past, I have sometimes viewed these flaws or unique things about myself as a liability. But lately, I have been viewing them as part of my unique landscape.
A few summers ago, my husband and drove from Kentucky to Oregon, and we got to see different kinds of beautiful landscapes: Colorado, Utah, Oregon. Rocks, forest, beach.
Every landscape had its own unique beauty that told its own unique story.
I wouldn’t have changed the way any of them looked.
Your body and my body are that way, too. We each have our own unique landscape that tells its own story. We don’t need to change—we only need to be kind and gentle with ourselves and listen. Our bodies will tell us what to do.
Exploration: Think of some parts of your body that you often are critical of. Consider taking some time today to sit quietly and put your hand on that body part and say, “Thank you for your story. Thank you for being a part of my unique landscape. I respect you.”
Five: Trust Your Body
Your body has one job—it wants to protect you and help you be healthy. That’s all it wants to do, and it works 24/7 to do that. We often think we are in a fight with our body. Many of us learn early on a weird message that our body doesn’t know how to eat or to move and that we must distrust it and follow all these weird external rules.
Consider something. Do you trust your body to tell you when to pee? How about when to cough or sneeze? How about to tell you when your arm is hurting? Of course you do. Your body knows how to do these things naturally, and if you follow your natural body cues, peeing, coughing, and sneezing, etc. happen naturally without your worrying about it.
This is how our body works with eating and movement, too—until cultural messages interfere with its natural signals. Our body naturally knows when and what to eat and when to stop to keep us healthy. Unfortunately, diet culture, body shame, and fear of eating can disrupt all these signals. Eating then becomes this activity fraught with fear and anxiety.
The good news is that a growing number of nutritionists and medical doctors are realizing that we can escape fear and shame-based eating and reconnect with our natural hunger and fullness signals.
Exploration: Two of the best resources for learning about connecting with our bodies are the Intuitive Eating Community (developed by nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch) and medical doctor Michelle May’s program, Am I Hungry? If you are interested in reestablishing a natural connection with your body, consider exploring one or both of these sites.
Six: Stand Up for Yourself
There are a lot of people in the world who believe it is their job to police people’s bodies. There are also a lot of unhealthy people who gain a sense of false power by bullying and shaming people about their bodies. You know what? Your body is no one else’s business, and you never have to be ashamed of it. You are the boss of your body, and you are the best person to determine what it needs to eat and how it needs to move.
You are also permitted and encouraged to exist in the world in whatever size and shape is best for you right now—whether that is small, large, or somewhere in between. Your body is a marvel, and you deserve to live your glorious life, just like anyone else.
You have the right to stand up to people who bully you, shame you, or police you. Here are some things you can say:
I don’t need unsolicited advice about my body.
I did not ask for your advice on this issue.
I know you are trying to be helpful, but comments like that cause a lot of stress and anxiety, and that is really bad for my health. I know you don’t want to hurt my health, so please stop.
I’m building a great relationship with my body, and I’m excited about it.
Thanks, but I only take medical advice from doctors and nutritionists.
Don’t be an ass. (Depending on who the person is shaming you, a simple reprimand like this can be very helpful.)
What are you hoping to achieve by making comments like this? (Frequently people will respond by saying something like “I am just concerned about your health.” If they respond this way, you can reply that food and body policing cause significant anxiety, which negative impact physical health. You can read about this here. You can point out that if they are really concerned about your health, they need to avoid diet talk or body policing. You can also introduce them to books from the body positive community, like the ones mentioned above).
Find a body positive nutritionist or doctor. Such nutritionist or doctor will completely de-emphasize weight and will instead encourage practices like self-acceptance, mindfulness, meditation, gentle movement, and rejecting diet culture. Such a practitioner would also say that body shaming and body policing is bad for people’s health. Working with a practitioner can allow you to say with confidence to people who body police or shame: I have developed an awesome health plan with my nutritionist [or doctor]. She [or he] has told me that it is bad for me when people mention my health or body in a negative way. So, if you are concerned about my health, I need you to stop.
Exploration: If you have problems with people in your life body-shaming or body-policing you, spend some time this week imagining yourself responding to them with confidence using one of the phrases above or one like it. Work on building feelings of confidence and relishing these feelings while you are imagining. This may seem like a hippy-dippy exercise, but it can help you rehearse new habits that you want to develop. You can read about the benefits of imagination for setting new habits here.
If you are interested in finding a body-positive doctor or nutritionist, call a local medical or nutrition clinic and ask them for recommendations. There are likely several where you live. You may also be able to find one in your area by using these resources: Intuitive Eating Certified Counselors; HAES (Health at Every Size) Resource List; Mindful Eating Programs (associated with Michelle May’s Am I Hungry?)
You will notice that some of the resources above are online, which allows for greater flexibility in working with people and incorporating these ideas into your life.
Seven: Dream Big Dreams and Get Excited
One of the greatest ways to strengthen your relationship with your body is to dream big about an adventure you want to go on or a project you want to do that involves strengthening your body and your relationship with it. For example, a few years ago, I taught myself how to juggle. This was a really fun way for my mind and body to become better allies. You can read about the benefits of juggling here.
In addition, lately I have been dreaming lately of hiking part of the Appalachian Trail or going on a hiking adventure in Ireland with a friend of mine for one of my big birthday years. The more I dream about things like this, the more excited I become. In addition, the more I want to form habits that build physical strengthen and get rid of habits that decrease it.
Exploration: This week, list five or small or large physical goals that would be fun for you to work towards. I encourage you to avoid choosing goals you think you should choose. Rather, focus on ones that excite you. Here are some you might think about.
Learn to juggle
Become a certified yoga instructor.
Walk a half mile.
Run a half mile.
Jump rope for a minute.
Learn to do a line dance or the Thriller dance.
Learn to ride a bike.
Go dancing with friends.
Do a mini -triathalon.
Do five jumping jacks.
Do one push-up each day this month and see what happens by the end of the month.
Run a half marathon.
Go for a five minute hike.
Can you think of other goals that excite you? I would love to hear about them below.
Now spend some time breaking these goals down into small manageable steps you can regularly work on. Don’t stress yourself out. Don’t make it a chore. Work on these steps by making them fun, playful breaks during your day.
Bonus: Ditch people who do not appreciate your body and hang around people who think you are super cool and groovy right now. Because you are.
Friend, you don’t have to wait to be smaller or bigger or more curvy or more muscular or skinnier or “hotter” or whatever to have beautiful, meaningful relationships with people who love you. There are awesome men and women out there who already see your grooviness right now, no matter what size you are or what you look like. I assure you: You are already gorgeous, beautiful, hot, handsome, lovely, amazing just as you are. All of this comes from the light inside you, and your job is to let your light shine.
I don’t mean that we should stop being friends with people if they don’t compliment us constantly on our appearance–that would be a silly and vain thing to do. Rather, what I mean here is that we shouldn’t settle for folks who say unkind and cruel and demeaning things about us because we think that is all we deserve.
Don’t settle for someone who does not appreciate your light. And make sure you appreciate your light. Become an ally with your body starting today.
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 I wrote my dissertation on education and the good society.
 I don’t agree with this view of Kant.
 Kant, Lectures on Pedagogy, pg. 63
 Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 6:445
 Kant, Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals, 4:428
 Ibid, 4:428 and 4:429
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals. Allen W. Wood, editor. Yale University Press: 2001.
______________. Lectures on Pedagogy. Robert B. Loudon, trans. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Anthropology, History and Education. Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2007.
______________. Metaphysics of Morals. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy. Mary J. Gregor, trans. Cambridge University Press. New York, NY, 1996.