Bikini Boot Camp as Philosophical Practice

Only thoughts that come through walking have any value.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Here in Los Angeles, days without exercise are about as common as days without sunshine. Sure, they happen. But when they do, there’s always a lurking sense that something unexplainable has gone terribly wrong.

People exercise to stay fit. They do it to improve their health. And they do it to gear up for days spent in bikinis and board shorts during beach season.

There’s one key force motivating all those daily trips to the gym or the yoga studio.  It’s the goal of body sculpting – of using exercise to tone abs, build up pecs, and firm up glutes.

If you don’t believe me, just check out some of the names used to describe today’s fitness classes.  You can take hard-core body sculpting classes like: “Hammercore,” “Rockbody Bootcamp,” and the mildly inappropriate “Tight End Zone.”  Then there are the gender-specific classes like: “Stiletto Camp,” “Bikini Boot Camp,” and “The Skinny Jeans Workout.”  For a more complete list, check out Social Workout.

But here’s the problem.  Exercise isn’t just about body sculpting.  It’s not just about rockin’ abs and bikini bodies for summer.  Exercise can also be a philosophical act.

This might sound strange but if we look back to Plato and Aristotle, exercise was a key part of philosophical training.  Before Plato, most philosophers viewed exercise as a purely physical act.  They viewed exercise as training for the body.  Music was seen as the primary practice for training for the mind.

Plato shifted the paradigm.  He saw exercise – or “gymnastics” as he called it – as an activity that went beyond sculpting bodies.  He and Aristotle viewed exercise as playing a key part in training the mind.

It’s not just the ancients who saw the philosophical power of exercise.  In the 19th century, both Nietzsche and Thoreau talked extensively about walking as a tool for enlivening the mind.

Thoreau said “I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day…sauntering through the woods.”  Nietzsche put it even more boldly, “Only thoughts that come through walking,” he said, “have any value.”

To both men, exercise worked like a cognitive reboot for the mind and spirit.   It opened the mind to new and more imaginative ways of thinking.  It created a space for the best philosophy to emerge.

For this week’s experiment, let’s explore exercise as a philosophical act.  Rather than simply using it to tone, tighten, and strengthen, let’s use it to expand our thinking into new and uncharted terrain.

To exercise philosophically, you can use this simple three-step practice:


Step1 – Plant the Seed

Before you exercise this week, spend a few minutes planting the seeds of an idea or problem you want clarity on.  It could be a work or personal issue.  Use your drive to the gym or your time stretching to draw your attention to the current contours of the problem.


Step 2 – Work it Out

Do whatever it is that you love to do for exercise.  It might be yoga, walking, or “Body Bar Spontaneous Combustion” (believe it or not – that’s a real class name).   Go fully into your workout.  Get your breath moving, heart pumping, and sweat dripping.


Step 3 – Do Your Philosophy

At the end of your workout, or even during it, revisit the issue.  There’s a chance that when you revisit it, nothing has changed.  But I find that most workouts create an inner shift.  The cognitive reboot of exercise opens my mind.   Problems dissolve into possibilities.  And random thoughts turn into imaginative insights.


What do you think?  Do you agree with Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Thoreau?  Can we extend the benefits of exercise beyond the physical?

Can we use yoga or kickboxing aerobics to create a Socratic-mind in addition to a beach-ready-body?



  1. Ken Wert says:

    I do some of my best writing (I think) and best editing while on the stationary bike at the gym. Truthfully, I hadn’t thought about the cognitive side of exercise before, only the two-birds-with-one-stone element of writing and editing while working out.

    But now that you mention it, I do seem to have a bit of clarity that seems to flow a bit more readily than at other times.

    Even when I’m working on an idea in the office, I get up and walk. The movement seems to open thinks up and stirs the thought process for me.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Nate.

    • Nate Klemp says:

      Hey Ken,

      Thanks so much for your thoughts. Yeah, I hadn’t thought about it too much either. Then I started noticing how many great insights and ideas came out of walking, yoga, and other forms of exercise. That inspired me to look back a bit into the philosophical tradition.

      Thanks again!

  2. “Thoreau said “I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day…sauntering through the woods.” Nietzsche put it even more boldly, “Only thoughts that come through walking,” he said, “have any value.”

    Just brilliant!

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