“True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind and exercise of the body” (Alexander von Humboldt).
EXERCISE SHOULD BE THOUGHT OF AS A BENEFIT RATHER THAN A CHORE. The very word sounds like something unpleasant, an experience to be endured only because it is good for us. But rightly defined and properly appreciated, exercise is seen to be a privilege. Strictly speaking, “exercise” is part of a group of words that refer to “activities undertaken for training in some skill,” but for the purposes of our discussion today, let’s think of it simply as “activity.” In terms of our character, don’t we want to be people of activity rather than inactivity? Don’t we want to be people who “exercise” ourselves?
When most people think of exercise, they think only of physical or bodily exercise, and while that is not the only kind (as we shall see in a moment), it is certainly an important kind. In our sedentary society, most of us get far too little physical exercise. Consequently, our bodies atrophy and become less and less capable of doing what needs to be done. We should see our bodies as the instruments through which our minds do their work, and we should be good stewards of our bodies, taking care of them so as to get the maximum mileage out of them. As Socrates said, “We can do nothing without the body; let us always take care that it is in the best condition to sustain us.”
But bodily exercise is not the only kind we need. Our minds need to engage in activity as well, and if we don’t exercise them, they will surely become “flabby.” If we’re wise, we’ll put our minds through their paces every day, forcing them to get up and get to work.
Both bodily and mentally, exercise (or activity) is the only way to improve, to make progress, and to go forward. As Hugh Blair put it, “Exercise is the chief source of improvement in our faculties.” And really, there is no safe middle ground. Either we are, by exercise, going forward or we’re sliding backward. To live passively and do nothing is to die. If we would live, we must act, and if we would advance, we must be active. So “exercise” is not such a bad thing after all, is it?
“Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test” (William James).