What Animal Farm Can Teach Us About Fitness

Author - Stephen Griffith C.S.C.S. 




Animal Farm is a satire written by George Orwell that reflects the events leading up to the Russian revolution and the rise of Soviet Union. It's a fantastic and thought provoking book like his other - 1984 - and I recommend everyone read it. While I was reading it though there was a character named Boxer whose attitude reflects many gym goers. There's a valuable lesson we can all learn about staying healthy, questioning authority and being successful in the gym.   

Boxer is a well-intentioned but naïve horse in George Orwell's book Animal Farm.

He is a powerful horse regarded for his strength, stamina and work ethic.

Boxer lives by two slogans - “I will work harder" and “Napoleon is always right”

Eventually, his body breaks down from the hard work in the fields and instead of retiring in the pasture as Napoleon (The farms tyrannical leader) promised, he is instead fooled and sent to his death.

While unintentional, Boxer’s mantra's reflects the two most common mistakes most people face when they try to get healthier. His story serves as a warning for all of us.

Boxer’s first slogan of “I will work harder” implies that your success is directly related to how hard you work.

It explains that the reason you haven't achieved your goals is due to your laziness and lack of effort. To solve the problem, you just need to work harder.

While it’s true, that fitness requires effort, this unchecked idea that working harder will solve your problems is more likely to hurt than to help.

Many start by doing more. They come to the logical conclusion that to see better results they must do more. If 2 times a week is good, then 5 times a week must be better.

If you can't do more, then do it harder. Hence the accent of high-intensity training and boot camp classes where people jump up, down and all around to exhaustion.

But how many people maintain these extreme regimes for more than a month?

I’ve seen too many people fail at this idea that working harder is all that is needed. If they don’t burn out mentally, they burn out physically from doing too much, too soon.

To be successful, your hard work must be directed.

As famed coach John Wooden would say “don’t mistake activity for achievement”. Just because you do more and work harder doesn’t mean you're making progress.

John Wooden coached UCLA to 10 national championships in 12 years, with a streak of 7 in a row. It’s the most impressive dynasty men's college basketball has ever seen. Wooden's success came from a focus on mastering the basics.

The basics provide the foundation for success. As strength coach Mark Rippetoe puts it

Done correctly, it sets the stage for a lifetime of proper training habits, long-term progress, and athletic achievement far above what would be possible without it,"  

In fitness learning the basics include learning how hard to work, when to rest, and how to progress your training. It teaches proper technique and consistency.

In nutrition, it's learning what to eat and how to manage your portion sizes. It's learning to listen to your body, build a healthy relationship with food, and how to prepare your meals.

The basics teach us how to reap the most from our efforts. Unfortunately, they are the first to be overlooked when we push this mantra of work harder. Instead of working harder, work smarter. Take a step back and put your effort towards mastering the fundamentals and building an environment conducive to your long-term success.

Napoleon is the tyrannical leader on Animal Farm and he uses his authority to manipulate the other animals to do what he wishes.

Boxer is one of those animals. He is well-intentioned but naïve - lacking experience, wisdom and judgment.

It’s this naivety that leads to Boxer's second mantra of  "Napoleon is always right”.

Boxer trust Napoleons authority because he doesn’t know better and adopts his second mantra of “Napoleon is always right”

He believes and follows the orders of Napoleon till the day he's sent to his death.

This troubling scene reflects the worst parts of the fitness industry.

Every day, I see many well-intentioned people get caught up in the advice of frauds, gurus, and salesman.

They promise secret exercises and rapid weight loss. They take your money, and what they leave a lack of results, frustration and, helplessness.

The reason they're successful is that as a population we are naïve to the best practices of health and wellness.

And it’s not your fault. Our physical education fails to teach students the basic skills they need to move right, eat well, and live a healthy life. Instead, we're out into the world to figure it out on our own.

The reason many people are prone to following poor advice is that they lack the ability to critically question and analyze the claims they're told. Because we cannot discern fact from fraud, we fall back on the mantra of “Napoleon is always right”. We trust anyone who seems to be an authority in the industry.

It can be a TV personality such as Dr. OZ.

The buff Instagram trainer with his big muscles.

Or it could be the articles in popular magazines designed to maximize clicks.

As an industry and society, we must do better.

As an individual, you should aim to build the ability to critically analyze the claims you are told. Take a healthy dose of skepticism with you always.

Follow reputable people in the industry. You can start here as my mission at Fitness Made Clear is to give a balanced look at topics of health and fitness. Remember the truth is nuanced and depends on the situation. There are no black or white, just shades of gray.

Next, when you receive information, consider who it's coming from and what their motives are. 

Next, ask what are their biases? Every source has a bias. If you ask a running coach and a strength coach how to get healthy, you will get two different answers. Chances are there both right, but what's best for you will depend on your situation.

Lastly, remember there are no secrets or quick fixes. Your success will require effort and consistency and it begins with building a strong foundation of skills and habits. There is no way around it.

Stephen Griffith