The Political Economy of Fitness

As often happens this time of year, the Wall Street Journal editorialized on the physical fitness (or lack thereof) of Americans with a brief history of humankind’s desperate attempts to stay fit. In essence, the article demonstrates that the social and environmental conditions in the past required us to keep our bodies fit for work, war, entertainment or social status (e.g. fashion or vanity) in a way that is no longer true.

Annual resolution-triggered discussions of fitness revolve around finding motivation. From a lean point of view, motivation is pull. Pull comes from knowing our purpose, and aligning one’s actions with it. The purpose of investing time towards fitness is not a certain body image, body fat percentage or the ability to perform arbitrary repetitions of a particular exercise. These may be good process KPIs, but they are not the results we are looking for in order to fulfill our purpose, such as longer life, less illness, better energy.

As industrialization progressed, we replaced labor with capital. Things that people once did with their bodies, like bang on hot pieces of metal with hammers to forge a wrought iron fence, capital equipment now does. Certainly there are still artisans and blacksmiths, but machines have replaced labor for high volume production. Our bodies have adjusted downwards to become “fit” to push buttons and run these machines, but not to swing the hammer hundreds of times each day. Instead we pay to go to the gym for our physical exertion. What does it mean to be “fit” within a capital-based, rather than labor-based, industrial economy?

As economies mature from primary and secondary industries into service-based ones, we burn calories more with our brains in the course of daily work than by moving our bodies. This amounts to fewer calories in most cases. Also, office environments offer up sugar-intensive snacks in away that is not so a typical mine, farm or factory floor. These elements combine to tip calorie consumption towards the positive and to reduce fitness. Longer work hours make us feel we have less time to exercise. What does is mean for an office worker to be “fit”?

The definition of “fitness” is when something is of an appropriate and suitable quality, standard, or type to meet the requirements. In business, a product or service is fit when it meets the customer’s function, quality and cost requirements, and can be delivered safely, ethically, sustainably, profitably and on-time. If a product is not “fit”, it is because the design does not allow a good process to make it correctly, or because the process itself is unfit. What does it mean for a business or non-profit organization to be “fit”?

This is where we try to apply “lean thinking” to bring our processes and products into fitness. In a business environment, improvement through lean thinking follows the rule of “wits over wallet” or “creativity over capital”. Anyone can start by taking the stairs and eating half instead of a whole candy bar, rather than buying exercise equipment destined for the boneyard.

In the past, we did not have to “batch” our exercise into the morning jog or visits to the gym. Our physical exertion was part of the flow, built into what work, daily routine, and being a member of society, required of us. It is harder for those of us who are not athletes, not doing physical labor, not in the military or police and fire services, to define physical fitness in terms of daily work. Our daily work doesn’t demand it. In that case, finding purpose for being fit requires looking more broadly at one’s own ambitions, goals, loved ones, social group, hobbies, and desired way of life. What does it mean to be “fit” for your purpose?

My friend and lean fanatic Paul Akers went through a similar process and has become as fit as a Greek warrior. His story and method, Lean Health, is available for free as an ebook and audio book here.

Best of luck in 2017 improving fitness towards your purpose, one step at a time!

3 Comments

  1. sam selay

    January 9, 2017 - 10:08 am

    I agree that fitness has become a “batch process” that is done outside of our professions and daily tasks. With anything in our lives, we must start by asking why. What’s the purpose? However, some believe that fitness is a cornerstone to every other good discipline in life. Such is the quote that was shared in Meyer’s The Simple Leader, “Physical fitness is the basis for all other forms of excellence.” John F. Kennedy. In contrary to popular believe fitness doesn’t have to be hard and we can integrate it into daily life. Paul Akers does a great job articulating this in his book Lean Health. We can park farther away and walk, we can take the stairs instead of riding the “death trap”, we can clean up our diet and start treating our bodies as our most valued customer. Habits can be changed, but it takes work. As Jim Womack once said, “Managers will try anything easy that doesn’t work before they will try anything hard that does work.

    • Jon Miller

      January 9, 2017 - 11:27 am

      Great points, thanks Sam!

  2. Rodney Robbins

    January 26, 2017 - 9:49 am

    Is exercise a non-value-added activity? Well, if you can live just fine without it, your customer (spouse, doctor or self) isn’t asking for it, and it doesn’t put money in your pocket, isn’t fun and doesn’t improve the quality of your life, then YES: it is non-value-added. You should never do ANYTHING just because some expert or arbitrary standard says you should. On the other hand, if you are getting stiff, stretch. You will immediately see the value of the action in and of itself and naturally want to keep doing it as needed. If you are overweight or have low energy, eat better. Eating better should make you feel better immediately. If it doesn’t, you either didn’t need to make that change, or you are doing it wrong. Exercising just because someone told you that you should, is a great example of the wastes of excess motion, over processing, skills and time. I say the heck with it! Instead, go and see what’s happening with the people around you. Take your spouse dancing. Sort the tools in your shed, blow some leaves around the yard, or play fetch with your dog. Don’t waste a minute exercising when you could, instead, be out there enjoying life!