Damon Young is one of Australia’s most celebrated philosophers. He recently put out a book called How to Think About Exercise, which explores the link between fitness and mental wellbeing. We enjoyed it so much that we reached out for a chat.
What is the relationship between exercise and the mind?
It’s more than we often think. There’s plenty of scope within exercise to encourage imagination, to prompt thought, and offer meditation. There are even opportunities to develop virtues, such as courage and discipline.
You seem to be a particularly big fan of walking as exercise. Why?
When you’re walking you can encourage a state called Transient Hypofrontality or – as I call it – “walker’s reverie”. It’s a creative state that allows ideas that were previously kept apart to intermingle. It’s almost like meditation. Charles Darwin was someone who knew all about this. He would go for a walk every day on a path he had around his home. The walk, and the state of mind that went with it, helped him to do a lot of hard creative work and ultimately change millennia of dogma.
What do you think of the cliche that gyms are full of narcissists?
A great many people who enjoy exercise do it for the experience, not for the way they look. As I get older, I realise that I’m never going to look like an olympian. But I still exercise because it’s a powerful meditation. By the same token, I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying the way your look. The problem is when people think that being in shape means more than it does. If you’re muscular, it doesn’t mean that you’re a better person or morally superior. It’s only skin deep.
What would your advice be to someone who feels unmotivated to exercise?
The first thing would be to remind them that they are a body. They don’t just have a body; the body is them. Also, you can’t think that you owe the world to look a certain a way. You should really exercise for you. The fitness industry has been colonised by people who tell you to look a certain way, but really the best thing about exercise is the experience of doing it, and the state of mind it encourages. So, try rock climbing, try running, try lifting weights. And if that doesn’t work try something else, and enjoy the feeling of striving.
How to Think About Exercise is published by Pan Macmillan.
You can learn more about Damon at his website.