Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Mental Workouts

I often wonder why academics don't enjoy physical exercise more than they do. I of course don't buy into the silly stereotypes about pigeon-toed, pencil-necked, near-sighted geeks. My casual observations suggest to me that academics pursue physical fitness with about the same ardor, or lack thereof, of the average white-collar worker. I mean to ask why academics, by dint of the importance they place on mental exercise, don't enjoy physical exercise a good deal more than the average white-collar workers.

I guess I qualify as a fitness buff. I usually work out six days a week, taking the seventh day off to fast. I do aerobic and anaerobic exercises on alternate days, usually biking or running for the former and lifting weights or surfing for the latter. Far from some sort of recent fad, I've been following roughly this same routine for over twenty years.

Why have I made a habit of challenging my body? I won't detail the usual, obvious, and yet quite valid reasons. Instead, I'll focus on the one most relevant to the query at hand: I like physical exercise because I like to think.

In academia, my thoughts make their marks on the world only delicately and indirectly, through spoken or written words. I like working out because I can see my brainpower impact the world forcefully and directly. Today, for instance, I thought, "I'm going to set a new personal record: twenty-five pull-ups!" To my immense gratification, I made that thought a reality.

Of course, I do not always manage to get my body to follow my thoughts. (I find in that a corrective reminder, one that an academic like me often needs, about the vast gulf between theory and reality. But I'm supposed to be wondering why academics don't find more charms in physical exercise—not why they could benefit from it.) That gives me yet more mental exercise, however, as I plan out long-term strategies for reaching my goals. While ordering my flesh around proves gratifying, I enjoy designing my flesh even more.

Why don't more academics share my views? I don't think they lack the time to exercise. To the contrary, academics have more free time than most white-collar workers. Furthermore, most academics have ready access to recreational facilities through the educational institutions where they work. Perhaps academics tend to see mental and physical exercise as mutually exclusive for cultural reasons, thinking back on the "jock v. brain" divisions so common in high school cultures. If so, academics fail to use their bodies because they fail to use their heads.


Gil said...


While I admire your dedication, and I think fitness a worthy pursuit, it seems pretty obvious to me why it's not universally popular among academics.

Getting in shape hurts.

While one can learn to enjoy the mild discomfort by adopting the right attitude, it's still a significant obstacle to many.

People can turn their thoughts into reality via many different creative projects, most of which don't make them sore the next day.

Tom W. Bell said...

You say "hurts" as if that were a *bad* thing, Gil!

Seriously, though, I guess you have a point. I would say "discomfort," though; working out properly doesn't really cause pain so much as it does temporary stress. On net, though, the pleasures far outweigh the displeasures. Maybe, though, that only becomes evident (or even true!) after long practice--something I may have forgotten.

At all events, even in the short-run, the *mental* pleasures should, especially for academics, far outweigh the mere physical displeasures. Unless, of course, I give academics too much credit for favoring their brains over their bodies.

Anonymous said...

Tom: I don't really know anyone personally who have a workout regiment as regimented as you do, so maybe you can give me some advice. You always hear people say things like working out gives you mental accuity and focus other than the physical benefits yada yada. I always wondered if they know what the hell they're talking about or that they're just blabbing on about stuff they read or overheard.

Since you have been doing this for 20 years (i want to hear from the horse's mouth), do you think exercise helps you mentally? I have a hard time with focus. I swear sometimes I feel like I'm verging on ADD. My mind is all over the place although I don't appear that way. I mean your mind is like a muscle too I'm assuming, so I'm wondering it you can train it and shape it like you want it to through physical exercise.
I do hear that physical exercise spills over to other areas of life like discipline and personally challenging oneself in other areas of life. I think i would only start an exercise regiment if I know that there are dual benefits -physical and mental b/c i'm too damn lazy to do it for only one incentive.

btw, about Luther writing some nice hymns: I knew as a musician you can appreciate them. i think they are beautifully composed as well. But that's probably because I love Baroque music. Bach and Handel also wrote so many grandiose pieces. And something about old english that makes it that much more poetic. It sure beats modern day lyrics like "Jesus Rocks; more than Red Sox." I'm reminded of the time back when I wasn't going to hell, singing Handel's Messiah pieces at church on christmas and thinking how hard they were with practically everything being 16th notes over 2 octaves. People back in the days really took their singing seriously.


Tom W. Bell said...

SK: I *think* that physical exercise affords mental benefits, but I'm hardly a double-blind study. I've read references to research supporting the same conclusion, but not examined any such studies first-hand. You could hardly go wrong by trying an exercise program out for a while, to see how it affects your cognition.

Anonymous said...

Tom, how do you feel about masturbation?

There is a wide variety: mental, solo, mutual, during law exams or something more exciting. This is a serious not a puerile question. Should it be encouraged or discouraged? Punished? Should it become part of the academic curriculum or just remain extra-curricular? I'm surprised that neither you nor Glen has posted on m&m's (merits of masturbation) before. And please don't manipulate me on the answer.

Possible essay questions for your students:

Does self-love imply masturbation or can it remain platonic?

Is it employment discrimination to be fired over discussing masturbation or do you have be caught in the act will on the job?

I was fired from my post as Surgeon General during the Clinton administration. Do right-winger jerk offs jerk off?

Dr. Jocelyn Elders

Anonymous said...

i guess i'll start an exercise regiment. i've been meaning to anyway. although i started one with running and weights but stopped about a month ago. i don't know if it helps with focus but it does with dicipline and pushing yourself to the limit. and my ADD'ness seems to be primarily selective: aka--when i don't feel like doing something, so maybe exercise won't really help that.


Tom W. Bell said...

Dr. Elders: Wank off.

Ananda: Although you raise an interesting angle, I think it far from explains academics' exercises. In the first place, several sorts of exercise demand quite a bit of thought (e.g., raquet sports) or at least offer pleasant views (e.g., running, surfing, or surfing). When I'm stuck on a stationary bike, as I very often am during the school year, I read--always a favorite with academics! And because, like any academic, I have a very active "inner life," I am quite content to let my mind wander while I do otherwise boring reps at the gym. Not even an academic wants to spend all his time pouring over abstruse texts; to do good schoolwork, we all need a little bit of recess.

Gil said...

I think it's probably just like any other activity, where adherents love it and can't quite understand why others don't share their passion.

An exercise regimen has a difficult initial period of discomfort, bordom, schedule adjustments, and lack of obvious successful results. This kind of thing causes most people to quit if they don't have a strong resolve and confidence to get past this period because they know the results will be worthwhile, eventually.

You might think that academics would be better suited to be guided by their knowledge of the long-term benefits of fitness, because they value ideas so much.

On the other hand, many of these people are academics because they were afraid of leaving the comfort of their familiar academic life to venture out into the real world; so they're not particularly inclined to pursue difficult changes with uncertain, but likely, rewards.

Of course, I mean those other academics. Not Tom or Glen, obviously.

Anonymous said...

I share in your curiosity of why academics would not take the time to exercise their bodies to the extent in which they exercise their minds. Aside from the benefits we know consistent exercise provides to the body, I am also a firm believer that it also sharpens the mind. As I am sure you can attest, after you have missed several days of a work out, not only your body, but your mind also feels less sharp.

If more academics were inclined to exercise I truly believe their intellectual work would benefit. However, although somewhat stereotypical, I think one answer can be found in the nature of most academics. Many of the most advanced academics were more inclined to work on intellectual matters throughout their life instead of physical activity. Some were even subjected to some type of ridicule. As silly as it may sound, this leaves scars, many of which we deny to recognize but still exist. Even non academics suffer from this. I have a friend who refuses to get in shape. When I ask why, the anwser is "I don't want to go to a gym or go do this, I don't know what I am doing and don't want to make a fool of myself." Many academics may share in the belief and there may be a general sense of anxiety of among them about walking into situations in which they have never quite been at home. Although this is simply speculation, it is a quick thought. Regardless, I strongly believe that the mind and the body function together. The more they are advanced together the more they grow in strength. In terms of exercise, why would you constantly do exercise with your left arm and neglect the right arm? You want balance so you do the same number of repetitions on both arms. I think this is the way to look at the connection between the mind and the body.

The M

Anonymous said...

From personal experience I say that, yes, exercise helps mental activity. I go through phases, and quite often when I am in a strict regimen of diet and exercise (I also recommend fasting), I find that my thinking is probably much stronger and sharper.
To be more concrete, I am a Computer Programmer by trade and a writer by hobby, and when I am, as I am now, in a phase where my schedule is too busy to permit regular exercise and good dietary habits, I often find tasks that are otherwise easy for me rather challenging. My mathematical thinking ability specifically declines noticeably, but even writing in general becomes more of a task.

Anonymous said...

I've been walking daily for eight years now and it has done wonders for my ability to concentrate on things not to mention relieve from backpain. Usually my brain is completely blank but during my (often very long) walks my brains seem to work OK.


Tom W. Bell said...

The M: You make an interesting observation, one that I think holds some truth. I have to agree that academics often show undue sensitivity about suffering embarassment. Many probably chose academia because they saw it as a high-prestige field where they would enjoy an authoratitive edge over most of the people--i.e., students--that they encounter.

In contrast, while I'm at least as hung up on myself as the next guy, I don't have insurmountable qualms about making a fool of myself learning new things. Goodness knows I looked like a hoodad for several years, when I was just learning to surf! And taking up skateboarding this year introduced me to a whole new world of looking ridiculous. But I figure that nobody should feel stupid about learning, and so I soldier on, and hope nobody is watching.

Anonymous said...

gee tom, did you have a dad growing up that made you guys chop your own wood for the fireplace out in the snowy mountains at 6 am or have a farm where you had to feed the chicken and goats at 5 in the morning starting at age 4 which was the bedrock of your adulthood discipline? that would explain your painful sounding regimented routine.


Tom W. Bell said...

Naw, SK. Dad was a civil servant. Not a push-over, by any stretch, but not one to impose an unduly harsh regimen of chores. Of course, he *was* (and remains) a former Marine. And, notably, so was (and is) Mom!

Anonymous said...

The funny thing is, academics working on a campus are usually well placed be fit: they have flexible hours and access to a (usually) decent gym and track. Oh, how I miss law school and the flexibility it gave me to be in the best shape of my life, while still working my butt off. Likewise, one of the best professorial relationships I established was with another gym rat like me.

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wait how did i get here? said...

Let's not forget that in most (all?) cultures, hard physical work (exercise) was traditionally done by the underclasses - those without material wealth or access to education.

Intellectuals did not belong to these underclasses, obviously.

Would it be reasonable to conclude that intellectuals simply lost, through evolution, the genes that controlled their desire or inclincation to perform hard physical labor?