I work out.
I never did before this year–this whole free time thing, man, it’s crazy. Really it’s somewhat a social thing, as I typically go with friends. And I’d still rather play a game, any game–four square, anyone?–than sit around doing repetitive motions surrounded by grunting old men. So it’s not my favorite thing.
But it got me thinking, and I like thinking. What’s the best measure of physical fitness? Because God knows it can’t be what this guy next to me, kissing his bicep, thinks it is.
People at the gym are measuring themselves in their own ways all the time. How much do I weigh? How long can I stay on the elliptical? How much can I lift? These measurements hold great and secret meanings for these individuals. By and large, though, the movements are arbitrary, the muscles for show. And I know that physical fitness goes beyond musculature–there’s flexibility, for example, and endurance, and just plain health.
So as I sat there with dumbbells over my head I wondered what the most inclusive measure of this would be. I came up with an answer. It’s not the best answer, but it’s actually how I think about physical fitness.
How likely am I to survive a zombie apocalypse?
I both do and don’t literally mean a zombie apocalypse. Really any disaster will do. The question is, will my body betray me? Can I accomplish all that I could reasonably hope to with it, in the case of emergency? Have I, to the best of my ability, eliminated all possibility that bodily weakness will be the cause of my death?
An actual zombie apocalypse is pretty helpful in thinking about this, though. Say everything is quiet. You walk into an abandoned room, when what do you know but a zombie jumps out of a closet. Right off the bat we’re testing reaction time, your fast-twitch muscles that dodge and accelerate, the prerequisites for professional athleticism. There happens to be snow-globe next to you, which you hurl at the zombie. If you’ve got great hand-eye coordination, down goes the zombie with a severe concussion, the snow-globe denting his or her rotting skull. If not, well, maybe being a zombie would suit you better, anyhow.
Let’s say you escape the first one. You get to the door only to realize it is jammed, and there are more zombies approaching. Are you strong enough to kick it down? Can you outrun them once the door is down? Can you leap across the creek, swim to the island of safety, pull yourself up to freedom, without ever injuring yourself, falling behind, being left for dead by your friends who must save themselves? You see how this works. It is physical fitness in action.
You in the spectacles, you’re shaking your head. I’m making those CrossFit meatheads look pretty good, right? You and your degree are stewing with resentment. But smarts! Brains! Know-how! Derring-do!
Hold your horses. I’ll get to that.
If you were sent back in time, how well could you explain (and recreate, if possible) modernity?
This is the Hayden Higgins Intelligence Test. If I sent you to Renaissance Italy, or 15th century England, how well could you explain what has happened since then? (Assume for purposes of the question that you will be able to communicate perfectly well with these people, even if the languages don’t match up in reality.)
I mentioned fast-twitch muscles earlier. These things are genetic (after years of being blown by playing defense in basketball, I’m pretty sure I’m not a carrier). You either have the potential, or you don’t. But that’s just it. It’s only potential, the capacity to develop calves wider than family Bibles. You still have to put the work in to make it happen.
Mental fitness is the same way. Mental fitness includes both intelligence and knowledge. Intelligence–creative problem-solving capacity–isn’t entirely inborn, but it is more so than knowledge, which is just your personal information library. Intelligence has to be “worked out” through knowledge. So it’s important for my Mental Fitness Test to measure both qualities.
Which, I should note, it does, and well, I think. A person with a lot of knowledge could simply recite the manifold facts that make up our contemporary worldview: color is only one part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Microwaves can heat water. Bees are haplodiploid and eusocial. But, as you’re in the 15th century, no one is going to believe you. They will think you’re crazy if all you can provide them is knowledge, although you might be an impressive crazy person at that.
You would also need intelligence in order to maximize your ability to carry out the task. Intelligence would allow you to communicate and explain these phenomena, to recreate their discovery in the terms you are given, to literally build piece by piece the scientific tower. A person with knowledge might tell them that modern scientists have discovered that objects naturally fall at the same rate regardless of their weight (it is air resistance which causes any discrepancy). But a person with intelligence would be able to take this a step further by figuring out how to build a vacuum pump and demonstrate the experiment. Intelligence connects the dots left by knowledge.