Philosopher Damon Young provides a takeaway from his book “How to Think About Exercise”: “We don’t just have bodies. We are bodies: Revel in them!” Photo: Courtesy Shutterstock

In his new book, "How to Think About Exercise," award-winning Australian philosopher, author, and columnist Damon Young examines modern lifestyles and why exercise has become so defined—and limited—by physicality. What if rethinking how the body and mind work together could be the key to "reclaiming and refining" ourselves? The Huffington Post U.K. called the book “a fresh and vibrant way of rethinking the meaning of sport."

To consider what's changed in sport over time, Young looks to the ancient Greeks, who considered the deeper mental and physical rewards tied to the effort. "While we often see the world divided into mind and body, spirit and flesh, these ancient pagans saw physicality and mentality as entangled," he says. "The basic idea is this: A full human life requires striving in scholarship and games, and there is no necessary conflict between them. In fact, quite the contrary: Intellectual life can add to exercise, and fitness can enrich the mind."

Damon Young headshot

Australian author and philosopher Damon Young researched how modern man has shifted in his thinking about fitness. Photo: Courtesy of Damon Young

Young suggests that perhaps today we have become too much a sum of our parts, with our muscles doing the heavy lifting exclusive of our brains. “How to Think About Exercise” explores why that might be detrimental not only to sustaining a healthy lifestyle, but also to furthering ourselves as human beings.

"The fitness industry often treats bodies as machines, like cars to be tinkered with and polished. The idea is to get efficient parts and have a nice exterior. The problem is that alienates many curious, thoughtful people, who see gymnasiums as no-thinking zones. Others do exercise, but they focus on their bodily machines, and eventually it’s dull—just repetitive movements, and no Olympian stomachs or arms. So they quit the expensive membership and never go back," explains Young. He defines himself as an "egocentric rock climber," but said he learned a great deal about his own character—”pride, humility, courage, and the like”—while writing the book.

So how can everyday athletes get started reaping the existential benefits of fitness? "My suggestion is to shift the focus from mechanical tune-ups to the to-and-fro between mind and body. The reverie of jogging or eating, pride of sprinting, the sublime in swimming, the aesthetic thrill of weightlifting, the courage of martial arts—these things keep us exercising over a lifetime, not just for a few months before summer," Young says.

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“But what kept me going over the years wasn’t personal bests: It was the meditative rhythm of the jog,” says author Damon Young. Photo: Courtesy of Damon Young

Young offers up a few simple ways to start rethinking how we exercise.

1. Get used to the basic idea that these two aspects of existence—mind and body—are not at odds. The ambition isn’t an elite athlete’s torso or personal bests. It’s wholeness: making the most of our full humanity.

2. Move the focus away from other people’s approval. I don’t enjoy running because others can watch my legs; I enjoy it because it’s like a moving meditation. I don’t savor weights to impress strangers with my arms; I like the rhythms and the aesthetic pleasure of the shapes they build.

3. Try new things. This sounds glib, but it’s vital to get out of old habits and broaden impressions and ideas. Before writing this book, I’d never tried yoga or rock climbing. Each offered an intriguing experience, which I’d have missed out on otherwise. Treat exercise not as forced feeding, but as a smorgasbord!

4. Take small steps. Not only because bigger changes are rare and harder to maintain, but also because constant failure to achieve unrealistic goals can put people off. Better to just start humble but regular: a jog for so many minutes, so many times a week. For example, I started running again after a serious neck injury. I began by jogging around the block a couple of times a week. Soon I was running miles. Then I was running 10 miles. Regularity kept me running. But what kept me going over the years wasn’t personal bests; it was the meditative rhythm of the jog.

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