The Ethics of Human Movement

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By Greg Hickey

“There is no reality except in action.” – Jean-Paul Sartre1

Crossfit is constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement. It consists of physical actions which mimic those performed in everyday life. Clearly, functional movements have considerable value. But how much? Does this value transcend physical benefits and enter the realm of ethics? Loosely defined, ethics consists of the set of precepts governing what an individual person should do.2 People typically conceive of ethics as externally directed; for example, how an individual should treat others or how an individual should act in certain circumstances. Yet under the basic definition, ethics merely comprises the qualities a human being should or should not possess and the actions she should or should not perform. Thus, in addition to not wrongly depriving her fellow humans of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, a person should be intelligent and fit. By this statement I mean simply that, all things considered, it is better to be more intelligent rather than less intelligent and more physically fit rather than less fit.

In order to be ethical in any respect, humans must act, and action requires movement of one’s body. For any movement, three primary questions arise: 1) how much force must the agent apply?, 2) over what distance must the agent apply that force? and 3) how fast must the agent apply that force? The answers to these three questions define ethical precepts for human movement. They provide the minimum standards for how a human being should be capable of moving.

1. How much force must an agent apply?
Imagine you find yourself in a burning building. Another person lies unconscious on the ground in front of you. Obviously, you should help this person to safety if it is within your power to do so without greatly endangering your own well-being. The question then becomes whether or not you are strong enough to lift and move this lifeless body.

To plead weakness out of ignorance, that you never developed the requisite strength because you never expected to find yourself in such a situation seems at first an acceptable, if unfortunate, response. Yet a perfectly healthy adult’s claim that he never expected to find himself in such a dangerous situation seems little excuse for his cowardice, just as a capable adult claiming she never expected to be without a calculator seems little excuse for her not knowing multiplication tables. While uncontrollable circumstances like age or physical or mental disability might serve as acceptable excuses, ignorance does not.

That said, it does seem unreasonable to presume that a trim 120 pound woman should lift a 400 pound sumo wrestler. Likewise, one should not expect an octogenarian or a pre-adolescent child to complete this task. But a healthy adult between the ages of 20 and 35 is certainly capable of lifting his or her own body weight. These considerations lead us to the following ethical precept for human movement:

Precept 1: A human being should be able to lift an object equal in weight to his or her own body off the ground.
Corollary: A human being should be able to deadlift his or her own body weight.

2. Over what distance must the agent apply a force?3
Much has been said in the Crossfit community about the myriad benefits of squatting. In particular, I am indebted to Dr. Kelly Starrett, DPT, for the concept and basic rationalization of the ten-minute squat test. Here, I build on his explanation to offer a more complete justification of this skill.

According to anthropologist Gordon W. Hewes,

“A quarter of mankind habitually squats in a fashion very similar to the squatting position of the chimpanzee, and the rest of us might squat this way too if we were not trained to use other postures beyond infancy.”4

child squat

Children everywhere are capable of squatting in this position, with parallel feet, heels on the ground and hips below the knees, and there are physiological benefits to practicing this posture.

Humans living in rural, under-developed regions where chairs and Westernized toilets are less prevalent report fewer instances of low back pain (LBP) than do affluent populations and residents of urban areas.5 Thus, generally speaking, LBP is less common in areas where people regularly squat, and more common in urban, developed areas where people regularly sit.

Furthermore, according to studies by Israeli scientist Dr. Berko Sikirov, squatting allows for more complete and unstrained elimination during defecation compared with sitting by promoting greater opening of the junction between the rectum and anal canal. In addition to reducing constipation, Sikirov also demonstrated that squatting helped relieve hemorrhoids, a malady rarely seen in the third world.6, 7

So imagine you are traveling in a part of the world where chairs are scarce. The local people regularly squat when eating meals or using the toilet. Should they be required to provide you with a chair and sit-upon toilet? Or should you adopt their practices? In weighing the merit of the customs of other cultures, one should ask first whether a custom violates any universal ethical norms, and second, whether refusing to follow that custom unfairly burdens or insults its adherents. Given the many benefits of squatting, little reason exists to prefer sitting to squatting from a purely objective standpoint. Furthermore, to demand your hosts provide you with a chair because you are not accustomed to squatting is similar to demanding they feed you the foods you grew up eating instead of their local fare. A traveler must expect to adapt herself to local customs when such customs are not above normal human ability and are no less ethical than the traveler’s own practices. In regards to squatting, this example leads to a second ethical precept for human movement.

Precept 2: A human being should be able enjoy a meal or use the toilet while squatting instead of sitting.
Corollary: A human being should be able to maintain a comfortable resting squat position for at least ten minutes.

3. How fast must an agent apply a force?
Human beings lack many physical advantages held by other animals. We are not particularly big or strong or fast. We do not have sharp claws or teeth or hard shells. Instead, we do possess thick, springy Achilles tendons, relatively strong gluteal and hamstring muscles, the ability to sweat and an upright posture that minimizes our bodies’ exposure to direct sunlight. These attributes allow humans to travel long distances on foot with minimal rest. Our ancestors utilized these traits in persistence hunting, the practice of literally running an animal to death, one still employed by certain populations today. In a persistence hunt, a group of human hunters track their prey on foot with one hunter breaking away from the group to continue the chase each time the animal attempts to rejoin its herd or rest. Most mammals do not sweat as readily as humans and some must stop to pant in order to cool themselves off. As the prey begins to overheat and fatigue, the hunters’ superior thermoregulation systems kick in until they eventually overtake their prey.

Modern persistence hunts observed by anthropologist Louis Liebenberg ranged in duration from three hours fifty minutes to four hours fifty-seven minutes with the hunters averaging a speed of 3.9 to 4.1 miles per hour. To optimize the advantages of the human hunters’ homeostasis, the hunts occurred during the heat of the day, with temperatures ranging from 90° to 108° F.8 To those of us not accustomed to completing a marathon in advance of each big meal, this task is more than daunting. Yet no healthy member of a persistence hunting tribe could reasonably expect to reap the rewards of a hunt without ever participating in the chase himself. Healthy adult humans are capable of covering approximately 20 miles in five hours in temperatures near 100° F. At one time, a human who refused to make herself capable of such an effort warranted the scorn and disapproval of her peers, and even risked starvation.

For comparison’s sake, a pace of 3.9 to 4.1 miles per hour over a modern marathon race distance of 26.2 miles equates to a time of approximately six and a half hours. The optimal temperature for human endurance running is about 55° F, and for every 10° increase above 55°, the average marathon finishing time increases by 1.5% to 3%.9 So in optimal running conditions, a human should be able to cover 26.2 miles in between 5 hours, 44 minutes and 6 hours, 5 minutes.

business runners crop

In the modern world, few humans have a need to cover such distances. But consider that the average American lives about three miles from the nearest hospital.10 Here is a distance one might actually need to travel in an emergency. The men’s and women’s marathon world record times are 2:03:38 and 2:15:25, respectively. The men’s and women’s 5000 meter (3.11 mile) world record times are 12:37 and 14:11, or about 10% of the respective marathon times. So if a human should be able to cover 26.2 miles in six hours, she should also be able to travel on foot to the nearest hospital in 36 minutes.

Precept 3: A human being should (in theory) be capable of persistence hunting on foot for over 20 miles at 4 miles per hour in temperatures around 100° F. A human being should (in actuality) be capable of traveling on foot to the nearest hospital in 30-40 minutes in optimal weather.
Corollary: A human being should (in theory) be able to complete a marathon in optimal weather in six hours. A human being should (in actuality) be able to travel 5000 meters (3.11 miles) in 36 minutes.

While other standards covering the many complexities of force production, range of motion and speed undoubtedly exist, I consider these three precepts fundamental to the ethics of human movement, or the extent to which a healthy adult human should be capable of moving. They provide minimum standards for human movement as measured in these three realms. As such, these guidelines extend beyond a definition of what it means to be physically fit, and serve as ethical standards for all humans. Being an ethical human being requires physical action, and I have attempted to show through examples and argument that a fully ethical human must be capable of these three physical abilities, the ethical precepts for human movement.

______________

  1. Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism.” Basic Writings of Existentialism, Ed. Gordon Marino, New York: Modern Library, 2004, p. 355.
  2. Aristotle. “The Nature of Virtue.” Ethical Thoery, Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 671
  3. In this section, I address the appropriate range of motion for the human body. Answers to questions of how far an agent should move a physical object or her own body from one geographical location to another are implied in the first and third sections.
  4. Hewes, Gordon W. “World Distribution of Certain Postural Habits.” American Anthropologist, Vol. 57, Iss. 2 (April 1955), p. 231-244. 28 Oct. 2009. Online. 12 July 2013. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/aa.1955.57.2.02a00040/abstract.
  5. Volinn, Ernest. “The Epidemiology of Low Back Pain in the Rest of the World: A Review of Surveys in Low- and Middle- Income Countries.” Epidemiology, Vol. 22, Iss. 15 (August 1997), p. 1747-1754. Online. 15 July 2013. http://journals.lww.com/spinejournal/Abstract/1997/08010/The_Epidemiology_ of_Low_Back_Pain_in_the_Rest_of.13.aspx.
  6. Sikirov, Berko A. “Primary Constipation: An Underlying Mechanism.” Medical Hypotheses. Vol. 28, Iss. 2 (Feb. 1989), p. 71-73. 2013. Online. 16 July 2013. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/ pii/0306987789900169.
  7. Sikirov, Berko A. “Management of Hemmerhoids: A New Approach.” Israel Journal of Medical Science, 1987, p. 284-286.
  8. Liebenberg, Louis. “Persistence Hunting by Modern Hunter Gatherers.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 47, No. 6 (Dec. 2006). Online. 12 July 2013. http://www.mattmetzgar.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/08/persistence_hunting.pdf.
  9. Barry, Kristin. “Training in the Heat.” Running Times. 19 July 2011. Online. 14 Aug. 2014. http://www.runnersworld.com/race-training/training-heat.
  10. National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. “Distance to Nearest Hospital.” National Center for Health Statistics Research Data Center. Online. 18 July 2013. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/ahcd/distance_to_nearest_hospital_file.pdf

Greg Hickey is a former Philosophy major, international professional baseball player/coach and fitness coach, and a current forensic scientist, writer and endurance athlete. You can read more of his thoughts on the ethics of human movement on his blog KineSophy.

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