Toward More Mindful Exercise



A Review of Damon Young’s How to Think About Exercise…Damon Young’s book is part of the School of Life Series initiated by the public intellectual and entrepreneur Alain de Botton. I have written in a previous blog about one of de Botton’s works, Art is Therapy. What Young’s book and De Botton’s many works (including The Art of Travel and How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Architecture of Happiness) share is the belief that we are hungry for self-improvement and for making the world better. Much of the self-help book industry is insufficient to these tasks. What de Botton offers then is a fare more substantial that the “shallow and naïve” and often lucrative bromides rushed into print to take advantage of the latest widespread malaise or personal insecurity.

De Botton’s Art is Therapy is an attempt to transform traditional museum organization, away from its emphasis on artists, periods, and movements, and toward a plan that organizes collections that engage the public by asking the deep questions that a cluster of art works, from whatever age or nation, directly address. Thus a section devoted to Compassion, another to a Sense of the Sublime.

Young is one of the many authors commissioned by de Botton to lead us to the achievement of fuller lives. Other items in the “How To…” Series include de Botton’s own How to Think More About Sex, and How to Age and How to Be Alone. A companion series called Life Lessons are designed to bring readers in touch with the practical wisdom of thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud, and Byron.

I must confess to a general avoidance of self-help literature not because I think I’m above improvement but rather for a number of factors. First is the bewildering number of self-books produced each year; one needs a self-help book just to select the best self-help books. Secondly, if we’re talking matters more profound (like how to age gracefully) than how to manage a stock portfolio or how to use a stock pot, then the imaginative literature that I read and teach provides sufficient instruction. I draw my wisdom from Philip Roth and Alice Munro. Third, I resist self-help books for the same reason that I don’t make New Year’s resolutions; I don’t want to deal with the disappointment of failing to live up to the commitment that the book is designed to extract from me.

I must confess to an indecisiveness about picking up Young’s book about exercise and how to think about it. Daily exercise has been woven into my daily habits since high school, and even when the pattern was being formed many years ago, I was reflective about it. A cross country and track athlete who once turned a pretty fast mile (a 4:09), I have always tried to balance my exercise, neither being too fanatical about training nor too celebratory about accomplishments and yet, at the same time,  acknowledging and taking pleasure in the power that running provided to my young adult body. I could easily write a book called “Everything I Learned about Life, I Learned Running Cross-Country.” A chapter would be devoted to my growing comfort with being alone, a solitary runner on the road. Another would be devoted to my growing delight in the beauties of the natural world made possible by moving over hill and dale at a training pace of five or six miles an hour. Yet another would the discovery of the delights of team membership, a membership based not on a testosterone-filled desire to do damage to an enemy but rather one based on group support for individual achievement. Finishing in the front of the pack as I frequently did, I felt the obligation to run back along the course to root on my teammates.

I turned to Young’s book for what it might tell me about how to think about exercise almost a half-century after that school record mile time set in the state university meet. It’s a far different body that I operate today…heavier, slower-to-heal, clumsier, much less flexible, slower to respond to stimuli, uglier. And yet the daily regiment continues. No longer able to run without back pain, I divide my days evenly between my bike (on the road in the summer, on the stationary bike in the winter) and the swimming pool, unless of course a sore shoulder forces me to mount the bike daily or a stiff Achilles sends me to the pool for three days in a row. Without paying homage to Nike, Young affirms the benefits of just doing it. Persistence spills over into other dimensions of life. Regular exercise yields integrity and consistency.

Young, a 30-something professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, shares his own exercise experiences in the martial arts arena, on the rock climbing wall, and in the yoga room, places into which I am now unlikely to venture. Thus, his primary audience seems to be young men and women like himself who could profit from some more mindfulness about their exercise choices and more wisdom provided by the friendly, funny, and self-deprecating philosopher familiar with Rene Descartes, who led us astray with his body-mind dualism, and David Hume, the 18th Century Scottish philosopher and historian, who wrote knowingly about pride and humility. Young, our guide, helps us to be bold in our claim on the pleasure of the body (good pride) and a graceful acceptance of the body’s limitations (good humility). He wants to combat the stereotype of the dumb jock and to make the case that the development of intellect and virtue are compatible with the improvement of the body, as the ancient Greeks instruct us.

Since I no longer engage in competitive sports, I don’t consider myself an athlete, and I’m fine with giving up that title, though there is a residue of competitive juice in my system. It rankles me when the heavy-set women in the pool lane next to me completes her 10th lap when I complete the 9th. I’m irked when the 30 year old biker wizzes by me, out of sight minutes after he’s passed. (It’s got to be the bike!) But for the most part, I’m happy to finish the course, even though it’s taken me two minutes more than expected to finish the fifteen miles. (It’s got to be the train that stalled the through-traffic.)

Where Young has been helpful to me is in his articulation of the state of mental life during periods of exercise. I have long understood that exercise is therapeutic, a way of re-energizing for other tasks later in the day. It’s a way of being in a frame of mind where creative thinking is possible. Young leads his readers to a variety of individuals who have monitored their own minds (and those of others) and reveal ways to think about exercise.

Naturalist Charles Darwin celebrates walking as a way of achieving a state of joyful reverie (Darwin called it “transient hypofrontality”), a time that may produce, out of the blue, a startling insight. Clinical psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihali has examined hundreds of creative types in a wide variety of fields (from musical composers to professional basketball players) to get at the heart of the flow, that state of optimal mental activity when one becomes complete absorbed in the task at hand, oblivious to time and devoid of self-consciousness. Novelist and marathon runner Haruki Murakami shows that physical work and mental work are inter-related. If nothing else, the endurance required to train and run long distances prepares one for the physical act of writing, the long hours seated at a desk following the course of one’s imagination and engaged in an inner dialogue not too different from the conversations with self on the track. For me, all are true accounts. I mentally rehearsed this review while following the blue line at the bottom of the pool.

The New York Times would have us believe that de Botton’s series provides “self-help for the rest of us,” implying that Young’s readers, open to complexity, want more than just an easy formula for an Arnold Swarzenegger physique. Young would resist such appeal to snobbery. He believes that the philosophers that he recruits to explore his topic are within reach of all, even the guys from Jersey Shore.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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