Monday, March 4, 2013

Thomas Jefferson on the Value of Exercise

Right now I’m in the midst of studying for comprehensive exams for my master of English degree. As you can imagine, this involves plenty of reading, note-taking, and reflection. The semester will be one long mental workout, in a way. But it is important to me, critical, that I keep up with my physical exercise. Once a week, the weight room at my university is a refuge I cherish. Every other day or so, I walk around my neighborhood, in the park or along the lake. I have a handful of workout DVDs I rotate through. And so on.

There are those who exercise more than me and keep their lives in better order, but I still want to add my voice and example to the view many have expressed before about the value of mind-body balance. I am surrounded in my current situation by academic types: professors, graduate students, researchers, librarians, and administrators. Some of them maintain exercise routines, but there is a contrary mindset shared by others in academia that dismisses or even scorns such practices. This attitude elevates mental achievements above physical ones. “People with an average IQ can worry about their resting heart rate. I have more important lines of inquiry to pursue.”

Thomas Jefferson may be the ideal role model for someone like me, trying to find balance between the life of the mind and a physical vitality, and seeking reassurance that a true scholar can attend to both. Among other roles, Jefferson is famous as a statesman, writer, and bibliophile. In 1815, he wrote to John Adams, “I cannot live without books,” and indeed he read and collected a prodigious amount of books in his lifetime.1

Yet by no means did Jefferson care only for books, reading, and writing. In some of his letters, he linked physical and mental health:

"If the body be feeble, the mind will not be strong. The sovereign invigorator of the body is exercise, and of all the exercises walking is best.” (1786 letter to Thomas Mann Randolph)

“Give about two [hours] every day to exercise; for health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong." (1789 letter to Peter Carr)

Sculpture by Donald De Lue; Image source

In another, he actually placed the physical health gained through exercise above academic achievements:

"...leaving all the afternoon for exercise and recreation, which are as necessary as reading; I will rather say more necessary, because health is worth more than learning." (1790 letter to John Garland Jefferson)

Scholars disinclined to exercise might argue that as long as they are in basically good physical health, it doesn’t matter if they exercise or not. Or they might argue that physical health is worth sacrificing for the advancement of knowledge. To either argument, I take Jefferson’s position that regular exercise is very likely, if not quite guaranteed, to produce better academic work.2 Even were this not the case, walking in the shadows of trees, stretching fingertips to toes, picking up heavy objects, and all manner of like things are valuable just for what they are and how they make the body feel.  

1. All quotations are from
2. For scientific support, one place to start is the website of John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.