Georges Hébert, the great French physical education innovator, developed what was known as “la méthode naturelle,” or The Natural Method. He was convinced that for humans to thrive, they need the physical literacy to be able to move as if they had maintained the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for which their biology was designed. He watched children play, and observed that it prepared their bodies for heroic endeavors like providing for and protecting our communities. Combining his observations with the physical education traditions of the ancient Greeks, he constructed a program based on the concept of “being strong to be useful.”
Hébert used “strength” to mean what most would now call fitness. Fitness is the combination of mobility, strength, endurance, agility, reactions, and general physical skills that allow us to use the full capability of the body. Hébert was far less concerned with one-rep maxes, than a person’s broad capacity for physical mastery over their environment and body. He believed that reaching your physical potential unlocks all other possibilities. The Natural Method combined parkour, gymnastics, calisthenics, swimming, running, and more to create a functional training system that served as an ode to the design and adaptability of the human body, and how it works in concert with its environment.
Is Fitness Dead?
For many, Hébert’s perception of the world and the primacy of physical education are outdated. They would posit that, much like the usefulness of a horse, physical capacity is no longer of much importance in our modern era of technological abundance; that fitness is no longer essential for usefulness. Unfortunately, this is the worldview that has informed our education system for the last 50 years.
It is true that our pursuit of comfort has produced a world in which we can remain almost entirely motionless. You can pull up to the grocery store, and they will load up your groceries for you. If that’s too much work, Amazon will deliver groceries to your front door. If you lay down on the couch and don’t want to reach across and grab the remote, no sweat! “Hey, Google! Play Wall-E.” I’m sure Google drones are about to start getting your chips for you, too. We are told that this is the good life: seated, entertained, and having tech take care of every need.
Of course, this ignores every ounce of research ever done on human fulfillment. In fact, our most fundamental needs are movement and social connection. The foundation of emotional wellbeing and cognitive potential is movement and social play.
Fitness remains not only useful in the 21st century, but of critical importance. It is the last reliable means to promote the movement that increases the length and quality of life, increases cognitive potential, and improves emotional state. The first and best case for fitness in the modern world is simply that without it, every other endeavor suffers. Without fitness, you are quite simply not as useful as you would be with it. It is a primary priority because it magnifies your efforts in every other area of your life.
This should be enough to justify fitness and health as the foundation of our society and our schools, but there is still so much more reason to get strong and fit in the modern world. Just examine what life required of me this past weekend as I prepared for my parents to visit.
The Fittest Time of the Year
It is officially the Christmas season, and at the Trotter household, that means a 24-7 commitment to discovering the upper limits of Christmas cheer and activity that a month can withstand. Fall decorations are boxed and shipped up to the attic, which means I deadlift a dozen heavy bins, balance them as I walk up a creaky ladder, then maneuver them above my head to press them inside of an opening that is almost too small. Next, I must bring down another dozen boxes and bins full of fragile and inexplicably heavy Christmas decorations.
That completed, I turn my attention to the notoriously dangerous task of hanging the Christmas lights. In 2012, there were that landed people in the Emergency Room from hanging Christmas decorations. Just last year, my father-in-law fell off the roof and spent over a week in the hospital. It is a task that requires balance, stability, strength in a variety of odd positions, and the mobility to keep a low center of gravity and thus better footing. Fitness can literally keep you out of the hospital at Christmas.
Legendary strength coach Dan John has spoken about how essential training is for life, particularly for the elderly to stay healthy. Now in his 60s, he now occupies an age group in which over 28,000 Americans die annually from falls and fall-related injuries. Those who still train their bodies and maintain a fitness routine have better balance, are less likely to fall, and are better able to catch themselves if they do. If you consistently get up and down from the ground, you will subconsciously know how to land safely, maintain greater range of motion, and have superior balance. Resistance training will create greater bone density and resilient muscle to protect your vital assets. This is not to say that exercise eliminates risk of death or injury while hanging Christmas lights, but it does reduce the associated risks. Fitness increases the years and extent of your usefulness.
After hanging the Christmas lights, I turned my attention to the blanket of leaves that had obscured any view of our lawn. My front yard produced 10 full bags this year. I listened to a podcast as I raked, and was struck by how pleasant this all was. An overwhelming sense of gratitude hit me as I realized how good it felt to be working in such wonderful fall weather, with a vigor that would be impossible without a foundation of fitness. This had been a heck of a workday already, but rather than overwhelming fatigue, I felt rejuvenated and energized. My level of fitness enabled the consistency and efficiency of my work, and also a positive emotional state that made me better for my family and everyone around.
This day was uncharacteristically full of physical labor, but it highlights how useful it is to be prepared when life requires greater fitness and physical output. It saves you money on tasks others might pay for, while allowing the time working in nature that our bodies and minds need to thrive.
Fitness Still Matters
Even in the modern world, where infinite comfort and convenience dominate, we all face dozens of tasks where the benefit of fitness becomes evident. Whether to reduce injury risks, or simply allow a level of confidence and enjoyment, our physical health and vitality have not diminished in importance. Furthermore, you never know when, as happened to my friends in Houston, a natural disaster might strike, requiring days of physical work and a useful body to contribute to the needs of your community. I know that I’d like to be useful and able to help others in such a circumstance.
Hard days happen, whether from pleasant things like preparing for the holidays, or catastrophes like natural disasters. I am ready to be useful in either circumstance, because I have prioritized the maintenance and improvement of my body through daily activity and challenge. Despite what the modern world tells us, we haven’t escaped the needs that Hébert recognized a century ago.