Physical exercise is often considered a way to better yourself. There are the health and strength benefits, of course, but in many ways exercise is considered something morally good in American culture. What kind of person is worthy, beautiful, strong? Is exercise important to that? Is exercise key to self-reliance? Is it also a replacement for flagellation or self-punishment?
As with many aspects of our lives, social class plays into the cultural meaning of exercise. People who exercise as leisure tend to get more kudos for it than people who exercise for work (labor). There is also the question of international cultures and their appropriation, as when yoga or martial arts are adopted in the US and end up being changed. In a way, appropriation is involved in the core premise of the Karate Kid, in the question of whether karate is to be considered a cultural practice or just a way to wield the power of physical strength over others.
When you are writing about characters in fiction, are they fit? Ask yourself in what way they are fit, and how they got there. People sometimes will give their characters "superpowers," or physical abilities with no particular explanation of how they were developed. Do your characters have to work hard for their strength and fitness?
Nina mentioned how Seanan McGuire in October Day had a character with fast healing who never runs from anything, but how later when her healing isn't working she has to change her strategy drastically.
Cliff Winnig, in the lead-up to the discussion, mentioned that Michael Moorcock has a character who loses people dear to him at the end of Book 1 of a series, and then in Book 2 is depressed and out of shape and has to get his physical fitness back.
I spoke about the question of my alien character Rulii and his physical fitness, which depends on several factors - his semi-bipedalism, which means he's far better at running on fours than at walking, and also his history of military service followed by drug use and recovery, which influences his expectations for his own abilities.
Che mentioned that in middle grade we too often see the trope of "training with a cute guy."
One of the common tropes of fiction is the idea that the only thing that will keep you from being sore is more of the same thing that made you sore. Fictional stories too often ignore recovery time.
Nina also mentioned that there is a big focus on young people who can bounce back quickly. Morgan mentioned that there is an assumption that people are either able-bodied or visibly disabled, and we don't see many cases of people who are held back by invisible ailments or injuries. I'm working on a character currently who has a nerve injury that she's been recovering from for a while. It's hard to say how much it will affect her, because injuries like this vary depending on the day.
It's a good idea to figure out the physical history of your characters.
Ask how much your culture values the physical abilities of your characters. If they were injured or disabled, would they try to pass as uninjured/able?
Pedestrians are also an interesting question. Does it make sense for people to travel by foot? Nina told us that in Finland in winter, people are required by law to wear personal reflectors for walking as well as for cycling.
Some jobs cause you to be physically fit. For example, you can be a postman who has to walk their daily routes.
Exercise helps to maintain your body and stave off aging.
Exercise for major muscles provided by sports, etc. is not the same as exercise for tiny muscles provided by activities like yoga or Pilates or dance.
In a place with car culture, the form of cities changes and makes walking far more difficult. Cars need space to be safe, but that means that the form of the city is skewed toward people who have money for cars. Public transport also gives people the opportunity to do daily walking. Mass transport also often makes assumptions about people being able-bodied. This was certainly the case in Tokyo in the early 90's when I was living there and some stations didn't have elevators or escalators. Carrying on with physical exercise when you are sick can be a mistake. Carrying on with serious injury is also a problem.
Pain is exhausting and sometimes doesn't register as pain but as fatigue.
There were quite a number of aspects of physical exercise we didn't cover, including school PE, so we'll have to discuss this again sometime! Thanks to everyone who attended, and a special welcome to Nina who joined us from Finland!
Next week, guest author Fonda Lee will join us to talk about her forthcoming novel, Exo (and hopefully also her debut novel, Zeroboxer). I hope you can join us!