overcome dualism with intelligent exercise

I recently finished ‘How to Think About Exercise‘ by Damon Young which is part of the School of Life book series which I just love, love, love.

What an amazing book!

Young started by introducing me to the concept of dualism, and how it’s not only a myth but discourages lifelong exercise:

This prejudice is behind the myth that sport stars must be stupid, and writers weak and anaemic. It is an outlook that sees physical and mental exertion as somehow in conflict. Not because there is too little time or energy, but because existence itself is seemingly split in two. There are ‘body’ people and ‘mind’ people; ‘flesh’ places and ‘spirit’ places – and to choose one is to forgo the other. This is what philosophers call ‘dualism’, and it can rob exercise of its lasting appeal.

The rest of the book highlighted the psychological benefits of exercise which I have experienced over the last few years, and how we can use these to encourage lifelong fitness:

The moods of exercise can also give pleasure. From ordinary strolls to mountain climbing, fitness can have a psychological payoff: reverie or a clearer identity, for example. In each case, these rewards come from the to and fro between mind and body.

This is vital for lifelong fitness, because we can enjoy exercise even when we fail, lose or cannot see improvements in muscle tone or lung capacity. We can do yoga, for example, for the bliss encouraged by its stretching and meditation – even if we cannot become the supple knots we see in photos. We can do karate to savour painful freedom, even if we are regularly knocked in the about. By remembering the workout’s mental pleasures, we give ourselves more reasons to stop by the gym, put on the compression tights and sneakers, or don the togs or white pyjamas.

Young explains how we can overcome dualism by exercising intelligently:

So exercising intelligently does not have to mean researching supplements or buying the latest pulse monitor. …It means overcoming dualism, and getting the most out of every step, push, stroke, reach and kick – and keeping on enjoying these, even as our ligaments become more brittle, or our lungs more weak. Intelligent exercise is a commitment to a whole-ness: enhancing and enjoying our full humanity, while we can.

And he finishes the book with a strong call to action which encourages readers to see fitness as a personal adventure…

The point is to see fitness as a personal adventure, however painful or wearying, rather than solely a commandment.

The idea of adventure is also a helpful reminder to try new sports and exercises. Of course it is important, for the sake of consistency, to be regular in the gym, on the footpath or mats. But it is equally important to welcome novelty, particularly why it might complement our character. The brash bodybuilder might like to try rock climbing for humility, and the humble t’ai chi adept might try sprints or weights for pride. A Sunday bike-rider, deadened by weekdays at the desk, might take up walking alone for reverie. An anxious jogger can try yoga’s calming oneness. The idea is to see exercise as a remedy for existential incompleteness, instead of just a way to postpone death or purchase sexiness with sweat.

For this reason, the message of this book is not ‘just do it’, with its ideal of thoughtless action. (Perfect for advertisers.) There is more than enough ‘doing’ going on, particularly in gyms. ‘Just be’ is a little better, reflecting on a kind of bovine quietude. My mantra of intelligent exercise is one that suggests movement, change, transformation: just become it. The ‘it’ is entirely up to each of us.

Just read it.

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