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Physical and Mental Exercise – Are you getting both?

“We may venture to assert that anyone who can produce the perfect blend of the physical and intellectual sides of education and apply them to the training of character, is producing music and harmony of far more importance than any mere musician tuning strings”

The Republic – Plato

Society is addicted to beauty of the physical nature. People flock to gym’s to hand over a portion of their monthly salary, and fitness magazines sell in their millions. If that isn’t enough, you can find some of your friends showing off their newly toned figures on Facebook, and reminding you how far they have ran recently, via the latest fitness mapping app. Yes we love attractive people. We would love ourselves better if we could be physically fit and attractive too. But what is lost on people these days is mental exercise. And I don’t mean mental exercise as in completing the latest Sunday Times crossword or Sudoku puzzle, I mean reading books. Great books. In fact, it shouldn’t really be mental exercise at all, it should be a search for wisdom and understanding. But the brain needs it’s exercise, requiring the same stretching and toning as the body’s muscles. But who is doing it?

Science shows that the brain grows and develops with hard study and learning. Sadly, most people end this process after leaving formal education. Serious learning is replaced with weekly TV magazines, or the latest hyped novel. Yes novels can be great books, but in terms of expanding our mental understanding, it very often requires us to go back to classic literature to take us out of our reading comfort zone, and increase our reading skill.

I have recently been reading The Republic by Plato, one of the best known works of ancient Greek philosophy. The essence of The Republic is the debate surrounding justice and injustice, and what a perfect society would look like. Learning great stories and literature was certainly not lost on the early Greeks, and a huge part of the early debate identifies the earlier greek poets that Children need to learn, if they are to be raised with great character and mind. Physical education is addressed much later in the early part, but as Socrates the main speaker states, the aim of both physical and mental education is not to creates ends to themselves, but to contribute to a single goal; to train the mind.

Why it is so important to get both

Everything in life needs balance. There is another great quote in The Republic that states “Excessive emphasis on athletics produces an excessively uncivilised type, while a purely literary training leaves men indecently soft“. ‘Uncivilised type’ is perhaps going a bit too far, but the point is clear; there is no path to greatness without addressing both forms of exercise. An uneducated professional footballer may be a cruel stereotype, but after his playing days are over, unless he is in the perhaps 1% whose fame and fortune will see him through to the end of his life, he must balance his physical training with a mental education to remain employable. Otherwise, he will make a sharp fall in the income and social ladder, not an uncommon scenario.

As the previous quote alludes to though, a literary education without a physical element will not address the body’s needs for growth and replenishment. It greatly contributes to the mind with the discipline it requires, and the confidence it gains. It is clear that we need both physical and mental exercise.

So how much do we need?

It is of course much easier to write what we should be doing, than put it into practice. I struggle like anyone to get the required physical and mental exercise I need. The effects of exercise carry various reactions to different people, but I am sure that 3 productive workouts a week (45 minutes plus) will lead to improved fitness and body toning. This has always been the case with me. Workouts have to push you though, there has to be struggle, or else there will be no growth or improvement. There is a good body of scientific evidence now to suggest that we may even need only 3 minutes a week, but this involves breaking a particular exercise down into 20 second periods of activity and rest, where the activity involves the absolute hardest the person can push themselves. Having observed this type of training, people are still left exhausted and breathless, even after these surprisingly short time periods.

When it comes to reading, there is no surefire way of knowing how much we need. It again is often about quality rather than quantity. The late business philosopher Jim Rohn said we should stretch our reading to an hour a day. He went on to say you should at least do 30 minutes a day because “half rich isn’t bad“. It is clear where he thinks the full hour will take you. One hour is what I try to aim for. This should not be seen as a chore though. Reading is probably my favourite past time. There are treasures of wisdom and spiritual connection within great books. They can help you define your own character and personal philosophy. They can help you find yourself.

So the struggle for success and greatness clearly involves exercising the mind and body. Stephen Covey in his great book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ takes this much further, demonstrating that the four dimensions of renewal (growth) that need to be addressed are: Physical, Mental, Spiritual (values and religion) and Social/Emotional (community, friends, service etc). Keeping these all in balance will help you on a journey to success and happiness. Unfortunately, many people, if they are addressing any of these dimensions at all, are focusing entirely on the physical side. It’s not just the gym or the Zumba classes, but the sheer number of diets people put themselves on as well. If individuals would put their minds through the same workout on a daily basis, then they might find incredible riches and understanding, that they could not have possibly imagined previously.

Recommended reading list:

The Republic by Plato, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

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