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Exercise can make you more thoughtful, creative, and ethical


"I think, therefore, I am."

Rene Descartes' most famous quote, Cogito Ergo Sum, neatly captures the dualism at the heart of the 17th-century French philosopher's worldview: the mind and the body are two distinct things.

The basic idea is there's mind stuff, like reading or thinking, and then there's body stuff, like working out or having sex. A good deal of Western thought is premised upon this dichotomy. (See also: Plato's Allegory of the Cave.)

The problem is that this dualism causes us to develop very narrow, limited views of ourselves as beings that sometimes do physical activities and sometimes do mental activities.

According to Australian philosopher Damon Young, this has led to a bogus myth in society that smart people are weak, and athletic people are dumb. To address and debunk this assumption, he wrote How to Think About Exercise.

There's a tendency, he writes, to see "physical and mental exertion as somehow in conflict. Not because there is too little time or energy, but because existence is seemingly split in two." You're either a body person, or you're a mind person. But you can't be both.

But as he argues, this way of seeing is extremely limiting, since it defines people "without an eye for [their] whole humanity." Contrary to popular opinion, writes Young, "exercise is a chance to educate our bodies and minds, at once."

In the introduction, Young says his book is:

an introduction to the psychological rewards, and ethical virtues, of fitness; a companion to exercise, which shows how our minds can thrive as we sweat and strain — how our muscles swell and flex with the right mindset.

When Young invokes the word "virtue" — which comes from a Greek word meaning "excellence" — he does so without some of the moralizing baggage that often accompanies contemporary workout guides and programs. "This book is not a guide to see a person's physique and guess their morality" he says. Rather, by touting the virtues hard won by exercise, what he means is that athletic practice "helps cultivate specific dispositions."

Nerd Jock

(Alan Bailey/Shutterstock)

Take, for example, walking, which Young sees as a kind of moving meditation. While the physical benefits of walking are clear, there are plenty of other reasons to go for a stroll, as Charles Darwin knew quite well. As Young writes, when the naturalist had "hard thinking" to do, he went on walks — not because they helped him fine tune his theories, but because they put him in "an idle frame of mind."

Neuroscientists call this transient hyperfrontality — Young calls it walker's reverie. "Busy with pounding legs and pumping arms, the intellect's walls come down, and previously parted ideas and impressions can mingle together." By regularly practicing gentle exercise, says Young, we can provide our minds the opportunity to take a break from rigidity, thus allowing our creativity to flourish. "Exercise can be a habit that undoes habit," he writes.

To help make his case, Young invokes ancient and modern philosophers, scientists, and thinkers. For Greeks like Xenophon and Socrates, Young writes, exercise was a way to savor their full humanity. Young invokes philosopher David Hume in a discussion of the pride he feels upon discovering new muscles form and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to explain the state of flow he reaches during rock climbing.

Every page of Young's book combines personal fitness anecdotes with insightful discussions of philosophical concepts, which drives home the point he's making: you can be both super smart and super fit. When we undertake exercise in this holistic way, writes Young, the result is not just a better body. "It is a more defined version of ourselves."

I recently caught up with Young to talk with him about how he thinks we should think about exercise. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Brandon Ambrosino: You're a respected Australian philosopher. Where did you get the idea to write this book?

damon young

Damon Young: I would tell people I'm going to swing kettle bells, or do hill sprints, or that I published two books on philosophy and martial arts. And people would say, "You're a philosopher — that's weird." And the idea was, because I'm a person who thinks, because I'm bookish, that I therefore must be sedentary, and that I must be wary of these "jock things."

I got thinking about that, and then started thinking about the broader situation. There's a dualism in our culture where people tend to think of mind and body as two different substances. That idea was already familiar to me from philosophy. So I got thinking about how that idea influences our daily lives, and about how people exercise or don't exercise because of this way of thinking about our bodies. I thought people could benefit from thinking about exercise, and fitness, and embodiment in new ways.

BA: Who is your book intended for?

DY: First, you have people who feel completely alienated from the fitness industry. They see themselves as mind people: bookish, curious, artistic. They see sport as something colonized by meatheads. This happens really early on, for a number of people, who are turned off to exercise early because of gym class in school. It was like physical, psychological torture. They hated it and never went back. So I'm saying to them, look, you are not exiled from the commonwealth of bodies. We are all bodies. There is no reason you can't revel in bodily striving just because you're bookish.

Second, there are people who have joined gyms because they were trying to lose weight, or because they were worried about their hearts. So they join a gym, go for six weeks, then stop. They treat their bodies like a thing you tune up. The gym is seen as a body shop: you go and get things tuned up, and once things are better, you leave. What I'm suggesting is that these people focus on the intellectual and emotional awards of exercise, the way it enhances the imagination. These rewards would keep people motivated over their whole lives.

Then you have the jocks, the people who are fantastic at sports in school, and they're fast, and they're rewarded for being swole [someone who is very, very muscular]. But no one ever takes them seriously for their minds. They're not rewarded for their interests in literature, or art, or avant garde music. The book is saying to these people: you can value yourself as more than a body. There are rewards you can get out of exercising that go beyond flexing in the mirror — not that I've got anything against that!

BA: And you do all of the exercises that you write about. There are even pictures to prove it!

DY: There's no point of me writing about exercise if I haven't experienced it. In some cases, these are exercises I'm familiar with. In no cases were these exercises I was good at. But practice, you know! Like yoga, I never tried it before I wrote this book. But by doing that, I was trying to enact the message of the book, which is: enjoy your body, try new things. There's smorgasbord of exercises out there. Give 'em a go!

Damon Young

BA: You spend some time discussing pride - as a positive thing! We're not used to hearing pride spoken of as a trait we should cultivate.

DY: The basic idea of pride is taking pleasure in yourself. There's nothing wrong with that! It's actually important because the self is in part just an idea. It's not something we can immediately see, or touch, or smell. The concept we have of ourselves, we live out. When we cause ourselves pride, we give this idea of our self a certain firmness, or vividness. When you get off the couch when no one is forcing you, and go for run or pick up kettle balls or sit in downward dog, that gives you pride. In the middle of your life, when there's so many other things to do, you did this. You pushed yourself. And your feeling of yourself is enhanced. That is important because the fuller sense of self we have, the more responsibility we take for it.

Now tie that idea to mortality — because we only have one life. We decay very quickly. Those moments of speed, agility, they don't last long. The stakes are even higher, then, in this brief time we have. While we can sprint up that hill, we do it. We do it when we didn't have to. It's a matter of keeping up our sense of self as our capacities wane. We will get weaker. We won't be able to sprint. But while we can, do what we can.

BA: You also talk about humility in the book, which seems to be the opposite of pride.

DY: Humility is the opposite of pride. It's feeling of displeasure in yourself. It's a heightened awareness — to use Hume's language — of your own ugliness of character, of certain aspects of yourself that you don't like. Starting from that assumption, it's important to tease out some of the benefits of humility.

Humility is important to me partly because of a certain image we have of exercise as an arena in which brash egotists bump up against each other. Whereas anyone who achieves anything of worth has to have some humility, some idea of their own flaws or blind spots. Or they fail. In fact, they will fail anyway. The question is, how humbly do they deal with it? Do they say, "No, it was the other dude's fault," or "It was the rockface's fault," or "The grass was working against me." Or do they say, "This one's on me. I didn't train enough. My head wasn't in the game."

The basic thing with humility is: it's my fault, and if I fail again it's still my fault.

BA: You talk about a very humbling experience you had while rock climbing.

DY: I just failed! I was too busy worrying about what other people thought about me. And also I didn't do the training I just wasn't up to. But to succeed at that, I have to get into right mood, and be aware of my own macho bullshit. Then approach the wall with a better sense of its details and nuances, and where I am in time and space, and how I've failed before. Basically, I have to ignore what everyone else is thinking.

The pay-off to this is the feeling of flow when I'm climbing well, and in the right mindset, and have this dynamic attention to the wall, to self, to the feet grips and handholds, to gravity, and all of this is happening all at once, and I'm "in the zone," as they say. But without humility, without admitting that I suck, and it's all my fault, I'll never have that rich, pleasurable flow experience. Flow is a good example of how exercise can enhance your state of mind. But sometimes, we have to first shift our state of mind to properly enjoy exercise.

BA: How do we do that? When I'm working out, I have a difficult time concentrating when I suck at something, because I keep thinking about how dumb I must look to everyone else.

DY running

DY: The first thing is to focus on what the exercise gives you, rather than how other people are succeeding. For someone who is immensely proud and arrogant, they need to be showed up in order to learn. But for someone who is constantly humbled by everyone else around them — like most of us — it's not helpful to compare yourself. It rips out the joy of exercise.

You can only do what you can do. You are right: other people are better than you. It's OK to suck. It really is fine. Most people are mediocre at most things they do, and exercise is no different. Michael Jordan and baseball, man ... he just wasn't quite the same Michael Jordan when he was playing baseball.

BA: Why do we spend so much energy comparing ourselves to other people?

DY: As Hume notes, that's partly human nature. Our sense of what one thing is, is always gained in how it's related to other things. That's often the case with identity. If you stand naked in front of the mirror and imagine elite athletes, you may feel bad about yourself — or feel slightly aroused, whatever comes first. But if you imagine someone out of shape, or slightly overweight, you may feel better. That just shows the arbitrariness of it all.

BA: When we compete against ourselves during workouts, pain is sometimes involved. And this isn't always a bad thing, right?

DY: The mainstream understanding of pain is that it's bad. We tend to think pain is a straightforward nervous system signal: something happens, the signal goes. Whereas evidence suggests that, no, how you think and feel about that activity causing the pain will change the way you feel the pain.

What you see in sport is the meaning of exercise changes the meaning of pain. Not only do people put up with pain, but they will freely choose to participate in forms of fitness that are more painful than others. And if you remove that pain, they will get less out of it. Rather than being frightened off by discomfort, they instead see it as an integral but changeable part of a freely chosen exertion.

For example, the feeling of getting punched in the ribs in martial arts is almost identical in terms of impact to hitting my ribs on the couch. When I hit myself on the couch at home because of my kids' Legos, I'm furious because that pain was foisted upon me. But with martial arts, I've chosen to fight my friend, to cultivate courage, and to put myself in harm's way — so pain ceases to be painful. Any commitment to exercise is going to involve discomfort and pain. Make it your own. It's your pain as part of your freely chosen activity. Also, the pain won't be as bad as you think.

DY running

BA: You talk about beauty in the book, and particularly push against the idea that being attracted to beautiful athletic bodies is somehow wrong.

DY: A common misconception about fitness people is that they're superficial and shallow because they look at themselves in the mirror. There's nothing wrong with enjoying beauty, or even your own beauty. There is a genuine human longing for certain kinds of harmony and proportion, new lines and shapes. Those do appear when you build muscles and lose fat. And I have to be honest: I do enjoy looking at these intricate patterns of muscle groups as they form on my body. It's perfectly natural to be gratified by these shapes.

The problem is when we turn this into a universal standard of beauty, which is bullshit. There is no such thing.

The other problem is when you think physical beauty means anything more than that, when you look at someone's physical appearance and try to guess their morality, which happens far too often. There's a really nasty trend in media and pop culture where people hate on fat people, who are seen as "obviously greedy and lazy and stupid." There are whole television shows premised on the idea that we punish fat people, or we enjoy watching them punished because deep down we know they deserve it. This has zero to do with reveling in your body and zero to do with fitness. It is entertainment of the most vulgar kind.

The fact that you do or do not have superficial beauty says nothing about the rest of your life. You don't deserve any more or less respect or happiness than anyone else. It's possible to have stunning physique that required decades of meticulous planning and effort — and still be a dick.

BA: Another problem with appreciating beauty is that sometimes our admiration can turn into ogling.

DY: Yes, there's a fine line between appreciating and perving.

For example, there's a US sprinter named Carmelita Jeter, who had these black and white nudes taken for ESPN. They're just exquisite! The power in her body, the harmonies, the proportions are incredible. That is a perfectly healthy admiration, looking at what she's made with her body. But it becomes a problem when the only way I can appreciate a physique like that is sexually. Then it becomes about how can I possess that person rather than appreciate what they've made of themselves. And with that sexualization comes dehumanization. That physique becomes purely an object for your pleasure.

We know how women are often treated: they're valued for their exterior and nothing else. That's dehumanizing. What I'm saying it it's possible to appreciate the exterior without rest of that horrible oppression. I don't need to rob Carmelita of her full humanity in order to recognize that her exterior is beautiful.

BA: What advice would you give inactive people looking to start exercising?

DY: The first thing is: be realistic. If you are surrounded by images of elite athletes, you may be focusing on the wrong goal. Instead of enjoying the experience, you're trying to match others' achievement. Which is likely to end badly, for most of us. One way to fix this is to think about practices, not outcomes. Rather than saying I've got to lose this much fat by this date, say I'm going run this many times a week, and I'm going to enjoy the feeling of my legs running around neighborhood, and I'm going to run past something I've never seen before. Concentrate on regular practices, not ideal goals.

Second, be realistic about what you're likely to do. For many of us, getting to the gym on our way home from work is not something we're going to do. You may do it when the novelty is there for a few months, but eventually, it'll be thing that goes, because it's slightly inconvenient. Build your routines into your daily life. I do almost all my exercises from home. I run around where I live. I do planks, push-ups, sit-ups, kettle bells. Most importantly I have a chin-ups set. And I do it because its 20 feet away. If I have to drive to the gym, it's going to be problem.

Third, focus on your whole humanity, not just your bodily machine. If your whole focus is on how much weight you've lost, or how fast you're running, or how much you can bench, sooner or later that's going to wear thin. Or you'll reach those and plateau. It's far better to focus on intellectual enhancements: to experience the reverie of walking, the sublime of swimming. When you focus on the experience, that will keep you exercising for 30 or 40 years. Don't think of it as an abs tune-up.

BA: Can you summarize all of your thoughts about exercise into one guiding mantra for workouts?

DY: Revel in your whole humanity. Not just your mind or your body.

How to Think About Exercise is on sale now in the US.

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