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Socrates, the Mind and Physical Exercise

Socrates, who was wise beyond his era, stressed the importance of physical exercise, even though he was renowned for his talent in the realm of ideas. In one of his recorded dialogues (conversations that Plato supposedly wrote down between Socrates and others such as his students), Socrates speaks to one of his students, whose name was Epigenes; Socrates, having looked upon the young man, was disturbed to see him so out of shape. In his long discourse warning the young man of the ill effects of non-exercise, Socrates explains that, even to be a better student, it is essential to take part in regular physical exercise. It is shocking to read how modern-sounding his evaluation of exercise is, given the medical knowledge that we have today about the relationship between physical fitness and mental fitness and how long ago Socrates himself lived:

“For in everything that men do the body is useful; and in all uses of the body it is of great importance to be in as high a state of physical efficiency as possible. Why, even in the process of thinking, in which the use of the body seems to be reduced to a minimum, it is matter of common knowledge that grave mistakes may often be traced to bad health. And because the body is in a bad condition, loss of memory, depression, discontent, insanity often assail the mind so violently as to drive whatever knowledge it contains clean out of it. But a sound and healthy body is a strong protection to a man, and at least there is no danger then of such a calamity happening to him through physical weakness: on the contrary, it is likely that his sound condition will serve to produce effects the opposite of those that arise from bad condition. And surely a man of sense would submit to anything to obtain the effects that are the opposite of those mentioned in my list.”

Medical scientists have established a correlation between lack of physical exercise and cognitive decline. It seems that our brains cannot be fully developed without it and that it likewise bears protective effects against stress. But, more importantly, from this discourse as well as our medical knowledge, it is clear that keeping good health is essential to live well and to reach our full potential, even if our chosen area of expertise is not inherently athletic. This is something so often forgotten in educational discourse: health is not an option if one wishes to reach the greatest academic success or success in life more generally. Given the great number of stressors that ail students in the modern age, learning to cope with these stressors in a healthy, sustainable way cannot be neglected by educators; exercise (along with diet and good quality sleep) is needed, since it keeps the heart, lungs, muscles, and joints in the best shape. Further and as Socrates wisely noted, if we find ourselves especially stressed (academically, socially or professionally), we can rest assured knowing that we have at least taken care of ourselves physically; this can be one of many comforts of self-care as a buffer against anxiety-inducing, chronic stressors. It can build confidence as we make good, conscious choices to stay healthy, since we have given ourselves healthy ways to adapt and have not learned to rely on junk food, technology addiction or other unhealthy comforts to cope with our psychologically rooted pain. In short, exercise is one of a few essentials for good health, and it is striking to note how clear this was to an ancient such as Socrates himself; this means that we have even less an excuse to neglect exercise.

The practical matter of exercise does not need to be complicated; focusing on strength training, and cardiovascular exercise with stretching after both should be enough. For strength training, focusing on compound movements (i.e. movements involving the use of many joints at once) should be enough; it does not matter if it is bodyweight-based or some other modality such as external weights (i.e. tools such as dumbbells or machines, as opposed to one’s bodyweight in such exercises as push-ups). Cardiovascular exercise can take countless shapes: cycling, running, swimming, dancing among many others or team sports such as soccer or basketball. It only needs to be continuous motion to keep one’s heart rate elevated for a significant period of time. Further, it does not matter if one day of exercise is missed; it only matters that it is done consistently and sustainably. For strength training, this can be two to three times a week. For cardiovascular training, this can be three to five times a week or more if you feel so inclined, for twenty minutes or more at a time. Balancing both strength training and cardiovascular training in this regular, sustainable way will help you feel able-bodied and healthy; daily physical tasks will feel easier and you will be less likely to feel winded while climbing stairs. Also, the pleasant tiredness brought on by this exercise routine will help you get better sleep regularly and feel calm while awake: exercise’s benefits transcend the relatively short time spent on doing it and, especially if done regularly, will leave you with a consistently calmly clear state of mind and keep your circadian rhythms (i.e. sleep/wake/hunger cycles) in check.

In summary, the benefits of exercise cannot be understated, since good health is not an option. We all need health to live well and lacking it through neglecting to take care of ourselves physically (through eating well, sleeping well and exercise) will stop us from fulfilling our potential as human beings; thus, to achieve the greatest results as a student and scholar, exercise is naturally a necessary part of the equation.

All the best,

Jonathan Leibu at Connecting Concepts Tutoring

1-on-1 support is key to your child's success! K-12 and SAT/ACT

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