Some moves to flex the mind: Life Hacks by Charles Assisi
What really holds us back from physical activity are conflicting emotions that go back centuries. Fight the good fight; get moving.
One of the most idiot-proof arguments in favour of exercise was made by an Australian exercise physiologist, Prue Cormie, in a paper published in May 2018. “If the effects of exercise could be encapsulated in a pill, it would be prescribed to every cancer patient worldwide and viewed as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment… it would be demanded by cancer patients, prescribed by every cancer specialist, and subsidised by government,” she said.
While the idea of a pill sounds compelling (and, quite honestly, I wouldn’t mind popping one, once in a while), I’d much rather sweat it out. Because to exercise is virtuous. Unfortunately, that isn’t often how it is perceived.
The problem lies in the stereotypes that exist around people who like exercise. Those who exercise regularly often look fitter, and are assumed to be vain and self-obsessed. But it’s not just that. Our minds have become used to fitting people into slots, and so it becomes a case of “mind people” versus “body people”.
More tags follow from these. “Mind people” in domains such as academia and the creative arts are assumed to be mentally more capable and physically less capable than the average person. “Body people” are assumed to be physically stronger than the average, but mentally weaker. Such biases have crept into our vocabularies, with sports commentators being frequent offenders. MS Dhoni is often referred to as “one of the more intelligent” people to have captained the Indian cricket team. Why do we assume that the average cricket captain is unintelligent? Or that their intelligence is of a narrow-focus variety, limited to the bat, ball and field? Are these assumptions not driven by the fact that they look “too fit” to be really smart?
The fact that this dichotomy has been debunked over and over, through centuries, has done nothing to dim its popularity.
Way back in the Ancient Greece of the 5th century BCE, in a conversation with one of his first disciples, Epigenes, Socrates asked why he was in such poor shape for a young man. “Well, I’m not an athlete,” Epigenes responded.
Socrates then spoke of how a young man should work hard to keep fit. “Many people’s minds are so invaded by forgetfulness, despondency, irritability… because of their poor physical condition that their knowledge is actually driven out of them,” he said.
Perhaps Socrates was inferring some of what we now know to be true: that exercise releases endorphins, improves neuroplasticity, plays a role in keeping the brain alert.
Nearly a century later, Aristotle took the Socratic argument further. In his treatise on ethics, he made the case for exercise by suggesting that we think of it as a “virtue”. He defined virtue by way of a combination of elements that also add up to “excellence”. He then went on to argue that it was in the individual’s interest to pursue excellence across all domains, in order to fully experience what it is to be human. And so, he concluded, the pursuit of physical fitness is a “virtuous” act.
To begin with a healthy body and let it waste away certainly seems like the opposite of virtue. The human body was designed for movement, the muscles designed for use. I find myself agreeing with the Ancient Greeks. What measure of intelligence is it to forsake the pursuit of excellence in this vital area?
What also strikes me as ironic is how hard we chase a high — with screen time, with gaming and eating, and far more harmful activities — when all the body needs in order to release those endorphins is to move. Anyone who has taken up even the gentlest form of exercise, walking, will attest to this. Exercise releases endorphins that make us feel good, promotes neuroplasticity that helps us learn new skills, increases oxygen supply to the brain.
There are also the benefits of stepping away from the grind, spending time outdoors, allowing the mind to roam free, away from screens and stimuli. I believe no pill could replicate these. So even if Prue Cormie devised one, I would rather not take it.
I want the kids to remember me as a “virtuously buffed” man.
(The writer is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)