To what extent is philosophy relevant to our science-based coaching methods, and how can it assist us in improving lifestyle changes and social behavior overall?

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is getting gains. Or, at least it is depending on whom you ask in the fitness industry. In actual fact, upon answering, their response is likely – and hopefully - to outline the sports science and biomechanics behind muscle gain and fat loss, with the aim of educating in a sea of subpar marketing and disingenuous claims.


In other words, we expect their response to be based upon the innovative discoveries of science, rather than the archaic whimsies of philosophical thought.


In this article I want to propose something – something radical, perhaps, to many a figure in our science-orientated industry. My aim will be to make the case for philosophy, in the hopes of persuading you, the reader, to reconcile the functions of pondering what is meaningful in everyday, human living with the fundamentals of the scientific method, and how we can bring this back to become better coaches for ourselves and for our clients.  Whilst science is largely considered the forbearer of critical and freethinking, analytical discussion and open questions, many forget that the core tenets of philosophy boasts all of these – but simply broach the question from a different perspective. Whilst science may concern itself with the biological implications of a calorie deficit, your average armchair philosopher may consider the ‘why’ behind a person approaching a diet. In this example, both science and philosophy explore and analyze, and both are a necessity in making the individual’s life easier when it comes to tweaking dietary habits. Certain scientists may denote philosophy as ‘useless’ (the irony therein, that this statement is in of itself a philosophical statement) but in actuality both disciplines require a level of questioning and investigative work to find a satisfying answer. It is worth noting, after all, that science was once dubbed the ‘natural philosophy’.


Philosophy – the final frontier?


Bertrand Russell, notable atheist and proponent of the scientific method, once noted that ‘Science is what you know; philosophy is what you don’t know.’  This statement at first glance may seem meaningless, but gives us a clue into the uses of philosophy, and how we can extend it to creating healthy habits and breaking down psychosocial barriers to our goals. A scientist, for instance, can tell us what things ‘are’ and how things – human beings included – work. Science informs of the nutritional information behind the food we eat; the basic thermodynamics of energy consumption and expenditure; and the biomechanics acting behind a barbell squat. A hurdle that science has faced among the years has been the meaning behind all of these mechanics – it explains its existence, and how it came to be. I would argue against Russell, however, that isn’t so much what we don’t know rather than the toolbox for us to explore the world around us; it has the capacity to make extraordinary discoveries that have the capacity to transform life as we know it. The one thing I would add to this is that it is not part of science’s field of work to ask whether or not we should be making these changes.


This is where the task of philosophy comes in, and something to be useful when it involves the ethical implications of another human being (say, your client) in the face of a demonstrably true scientific fact. (A staunch calorie deficit will result in fast and guaranteed weight loss.) Whilst science arrives and lays the groundwork for discovery and progress, philosophy works hand-in-hand by guiding science, to help work through the ethical and moral questions (what ought one to do?) when faced with certain case studies.


Many popular scientists today, such as Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins, have come to the same, profound statement that ‘philosophy is dead.[1]’ They argue that science has replaced the function of philosophy -  that the scientific method and empirical data has replaced the trope of sitting in a room thinking about life, and uncovered the mysteries of life and universe. In one way, they are right – the physical forces of the universe, biology and biomechanics should be understood by science as much as possible within our constraints of knowledge – and when that limit is reach, it is our duty to attempt to go beyond it.


Furthermore, science relies upon data and results – an essential component of evidence-based fitness, getting clients results, and ultimately, is fundamental in being good at our jobs. We cannot ‘philosophise’ over the function of calories, or the rep ranges behind a hypertrophy programme – they just ‘are’. What we can do is, with the knowledge given to us by science, use it as he foundation to ask the bigger questions.



Asking the big questions


If philosophy is dead, then we must rely on science to answer some pretty head-scratching questions. What is theft? Does objective morality exist? What does it mean for something to be ‘true’? What should I do with my life? Why is it important to my life that I maintain an exercise regimen? To apply scientific empiricism across the board with these discussions would be an inefficient and shallow way of addressing some of the deep-set issues that plague everyday, albeit mundane human behaviour. A good coach or trainer applies the science correctly, in a way that benefits a client’s lifestyle overall – rather than expecting the individual to bend to the whims of the latest literature’s outcome. It should be noted that asking ourselves why we exercise and eat appropriately is not necessarily something that can be solved through equations.  I would wager that gaining results in fitness is much akin to living a good life via Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This was a motivational theory in psychology founded in 1943 by Abraham Maslow in an attempt to rationalize happiness and greater meaning in people’s lives. According to Maslow, once basic essentials have been met, the notion of self-actualisation is required to elevate oneself and acquire life satisfaction.



Maslow believed that those who has achieved self actualization shared certain key traits, including the following: they accept their life and circumstances; they are open-minded towards others and their beliefs; they embrace challenges and unknown, as opposed to fearing them; they fully appreciate their lives, and have a strong sense of purpose, often motivated by personal growth.

Now let us apply the notion of self-actualisation to training and nutrition, both considering us as individuals, and our role as coaches to our clients. When considering a person’s fitness goals, it might be as simple as to lose weight, drop some body fat, or gain some muscle in the span of a few months or year. But how can we dig a little deeper into this person’s wants and needs, and ensure that they are steadfast in consistency even during lulls of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation? Or better yet, how can we edge that client towards the top pyramid rung? A person’s desire to lose weight could come from a bigger ‘why’ – to lead a longer, happier life, be able to run around with their kids, (accepting life’s circumstances) or improve overall mood in the hopes of being a better family member, colleague, and member of society (fully appreciating their life, so wanting to be better). That guy inducing hypertrophy in his biceps may, on the surface, be prepping for competition – but analyzing it a little more, we see that it becomes a fulfillment of potential, or overcoming preconceptions of one’s own physical and mental limits – embracing a challenge, as Maslow would argue, rather than running away from it. Just by looking at these examples we can see that science can supply us with the tools and material information - but it is up to us to consider the meaning behind the set of data given.


So, training in accordance to one’s own goals, and eating appropriately becomes far less banal and mechanical when we consider it a means to achieving all of these ends. The moment we teach ourselves and our clients that there is a bigger ‘why’ to what we do in the gym, it becomes a much more important part of living – an impetus to become better and do well in life overall. Suddenly, the difficulties present in adhering to changes in diet or training are framed in a much more positive way. By considering the significance behind our actions, we understand the notion of hardship to be a necessity in augmenting meaning in our lives.


The meaning of life is to lift – and suffer?


Renowned thinkers from both philosophy and science have admired the “adversity hypothesis” – the notion that stressful periods or hard work can have a positive impact on our psyche and overall development, provided that it’s given in reasonable doses. How can we address set backs in a programme, or a client’s consistency, in order to help them become better versions of themselves? A thinker similar to Maslow, psychologist Dan McAdams, has theorized that our personality is in part defined by three levels – firstly, basic traits and desires; secondly, “characteristic adaptations”, including personal goals, coping mechanisms, values, and beliefs, and thirdly, the concept of the “life story”[3]. Humans by nature are enchanted by stories – we create, according to McAdams, an “evolving story that integrates a reconstructed past, perceived present, and anticipated future into a coherent and vitalizing life myth”. We commonly weave stories into our fitness goals to justify the difficulties of the path ahead of us, be it to fit into our favourite pair of jeans, or leave behind the emotional baggage of a relationship. In other words, finding meaning – finding our own life philosophy – helps to lend meaning to the challenging routine change a fitness goal may bring.


Stories by their nature are not products of the scientific method (unless we look at the neuroscience behind our fascination with them), yet some of the simplest fables or most successful stories, plays, and essays lead us to transforming our lives drastically. Ancient texts in particular tend not to imbue the reader with proofs and logics – instead, moral messages are delivered via succinct maxims and comprehensible instruction to elicit emotion within us. This certainly corresponds to the science behind why the brain does this, and why humans are inclined to respond so emphatically, but it is through effortless aphorisms and whimsical story telling – as McAdams suggests - that we actually engage with the material conditions which enforces us to take action. Two philosophers, Friedriech Nietzsche and Albert Camus, both notable existential philosophers, engage with this issue in their respective works, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Myth of Sisyphus.


In the former, Nietzsche touches upon the idea of life’s impermanence and its implicated suffering; all things are constantly changing, and it is up to us to face acceptance of this change and suffering, and gain full power and freedom in the face of chaos. Those who fully embrace and face this spirit of change and suffering cultivate into the best versions of themselves, and are able to take on any obstacle. In a somewhat similar vein, Camus discusses the idea of ‘absurdism’ – the idea that life has no inherent meaning, and this in of itself frees us from constraints and anxiety in order to be the best we can be. He uses the analogy of the Greek myth Sispyhus, a man condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up to the top of the hill, only to repeat the process infinite times over as it rolls back down.  Camus suggests that the ‘absurd hero’ – the person who recognizes that life is just one eternal ‘boulder up, boulder down’ scenario – is the person who is able to make the best out of the situation, and smile in the face of the absurd. As coaches, we can repackage these esoteric teachings in much more palatable terms, without the existential angst. We can demonstrate to them that the repetitive act of going to the gym, or eating an agreed-upon, goal-appropriate number of calories has inherent meaning despite its banality. We can explain to them that by acknowledging the difficulties or seeming pointlessness of these lifestyle changes, they actually become fully present in the process and grow as they take steps towards their goals. We can show them that, by ‘practicing’ moral virtue[4] and commitment in a world of chaos, they might feel a bit more confident in themselves outside of the gym. In this instance, philosophy highlights the underpinning use of difficult times or hard work, and how we can use them to grow and improve as people.






Wrapping it all up


Questions, thoughts, ideas – asking ‘why’, what it means to explore and discover, or explaining moral virtue and self-improvement – have contributed to the acceleration of the scientific method, and thus are foundations of philosophy. The motivation of why is as important as the method to get there – it becomes the impetus to progress in our research, rather than just thinking ‘cos it’s cool bro, ok?’ Science is not a separate process – so close they are that I would argue, for anyone who considers themselves to be a scientist - or seeks to follow the scientific method - inextricably becomes a philosopher in the process. The means of analyzing data and the fundamental, physical inputs of human biomechanics and biochemistry forms one part of our role as fitness professionals. The other part lies in asking the bigger questions to help our clients lead better, healthier lives, and improve themselves as people. It is in my view that philosophy, therefore, plays a huge role in improving ourselves and our daily habits. For as Socrates once said: the unexamined life is one not worth living.






[3] McAdams, D.P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5, 100-122

[4] Aristotle. (1962/4th cent. BCE) Nichomachean ethics. (M. Oswald, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.