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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

How to Think About Exercise

The School of Life

Damon Young



1. Reverie

Charles Darwin. The world's greatest naturalist. Collector of barnacles, orchids and beetles. Jane Austen fan. Stalker of foxes. And a dogged walker.

Darwin's daily strolls played an important role in his life, but also in the development of his ideas. They reveal the unique intellectual value of reverie in exercise: reorganizing concepts and revitalizing perception.


We find Darwin on an ordinary day at Down House, in Kent. He is walking on a sandy path, fidgeting with his fingers. His stick beats a slow rhythm on the stones. His company: a white fox terrier, Polly. She pants a little, as does he. The path is edged with oaks, many covered with moss. They creak a little, as does he. The stooping stroller is enjoying his ‘thinking path': the Sandwalk, a wonky rectangular track around a copse of hazel, birch, dogwood, privet and holly. Every now and then, he kicks one of the flint pebbles piled by the path: a record of another turn.

Charles Darwin was not a Romantic prophet or visionary, knocking back higher truths with absinthe. He was an inspired workhorse: curious, lucid, patient. And, just as importantly, Darwin was a man of unchanging routines. ‘My life goes on like clockwork,' he wrote in 1846 to Robert FitzRoy, captain of the famous HMS Beagle, ‘and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it.' Every day, the Darwin household saw the same rhythms of work, recreation and correspondence. And every day, between his tens of thousands of barnacles (‘I hate a barnacle as no man ever did before') and even more letters, Darwin walked. He rose early, and took a turn around the Sandwalk. And he did the same at noon, enjoying ‘a very little walk in an idle frame of mind', then returning for lunch and study.

Even with Darwin's sedentary career of crustaceans and correspondence, he walked far more than many today. And he did so despite regular ill health, sometimes ending in violent nausea – the symptoms, perhaps, of a parasite infection from an assassin-bug bite in Argentina, or a less exotic (but more common) digestive illness, like diverticulitis. Trekking abroad and, later, researching with equal drive, Darwin was hardly a retiring consumptive. But his health was poor, and often worsened by stress. Yet even in his sixties, Darwin kept walking every day, in sunshine or ‘heavy rain', as he put it, with some understatement.

Walking was, for Darwin, a lifelong exercise – somewhere between a hobby and a mania. In his autobiography, he noted that he was known for his long strolls, even as a child. ‘I had, as a very young boy,' he wrote, ‘a strong taste for solitary walks.' For the budding naturalist, the point was not simply to get from home to school, but to reflect without interruption. One afternoon, returning along Shrewsbury's old fortifications, he fell seven or eight feet – he had not seen that the parapet was gone. ‘I often became quite absorbed,' he wrote simply. Later, as a young man in 1826, Darwin went on a walking tour of North Wales with friends, hiking some thirty miles a day with knapsacks on their backs.

Darwin's health eventually stopped him climbing mountains – his last geological trip, to observe glacial landscapes in Wales, was when he was in his early thirties. But he kept walking right until the end. His son Francis recalled his father in the last weeks of his life, suffering a painful seizure: the old man was walking at the time. Note Francis's emphasis: ‘he got home with difficulty, and this was the last time that he was able to reach his favourite "Sand-walk".' For Darwin, to forgo his stroll around the copse was no trivial thing.

Question: Darwin often walked a mile or two every day, not including stairs and pacing from nerves. How far did you walk today?

Walker's Reverie

Why was walking so important for Darwin? It was not simply for fitness, though he shared the Victorian enthusiasm for a ‘constitutional'. It was not out of paternal contempt for the noise of family life – on the contrary, he was a warm and playful father. It was not just Darwin's love of nature, though this was clearly an ongoing passion – witness his disdain for London, a ‘vile, smoky place, where a man loses a great part of the best enjoyments of life.' And it was not simply to burn off the snuff he sniffed daily. (Without the drug, he was ‘lethargic, stupid, and melancholy,' he complained to his friend, the botanist J. D. Hooker.)

Darwin's walks were also an exercise in reflection – a kind of moving meditation. This enriched his scientific work, and gratified his constant curiosity. Walks, wrote his plain-speaking son, were for Darwin's ‘hard thinking'.

Francis's phrasing gives the impression of plodding abstraction, but Darwin's description of ‘an idle frame of mind' on walks suggests something more creative. Neuroscientists have argued that exercise can encourage innovation and problem solving. Not because it helps us study more rigorously, but because it allows our intellect to relax a little; to digest our meal of facts and arguments. Researchers describe it as ‘transient hypofrontality': the prefrontal cortex, which helps to make general concepts and rules, is turned down, while the motor and sensory parts of the brain are turned up. It's what might be called ‘walker's reverie'. Busy with pounding legs and pumping arms, the intellect's walls come down, and previously parted ideas and impressions can freely mingle – what neuropsychologist and novelist Kylie Ladd calls ‘the free flow of novel, unfiltered ideas and impulses.' Exactly what a trailblazing scientist needed in order to develop a new theory of species marked by constant, purposeless change.

Walking the Dogma

The word ‘species', now so tied to Darwin's name, is itself a clue to the intellectual importance of reverie. For most Victorians, the word suggested something perfect and eternal. It was a Latin translation of the Greek eidos: idea, pattern, form. For Plato, forms were the true reality, more real than physical stuff. Like Plato, Aristotle saw the forms as unchanging, unmoving: what continued amongst the world's flux and diversity. The species of life were the ultimate proof of this: generations were born and died, but the forms of molluscs, foxes and men stayed the same.

The species also had what the Greeks called a telos: a final end. Every eidos had some ultimate goal, aim, purpose. These ideas were taken up by Christian thinkers, and influenced many in the West right up to the nineteenth century. American philosopher John Dewey, in a 1909 talk on Darwin, described this common outlook:

From the casual drift of daily weather, through the uneven recurrence of seasons and unequal return of seed time and harvest, up to the majestic sweep of the heavens … and from this to the unchanging pure and contemplative intelligence beyond nature lies one unbroken fulfilment of ends.

Put simply, before Darwin, to say ‘species' was to name something obvious, pure, perfect and eternal. This was taken for granted in school textbooks, church sermons and polite conversation. Over the centuries, the idea of unchanging nature had itself become unchanging: a legacy of habit, institutions including the Vatican and the Church of England, and the dogma of revealed truth.

Like a handful of thinkers before and alongside him, Darwin gradually began to believe otherwise. He was by no means absolutely certain of his theory – his confidence grew slowly. Witness his quietly doubting note in July 1837, above his sketch of an evolutionary tree: ‘I think'. Anxious about his radical ideas, Darwin began to suffer heart palpitations around this time – the theory was a challenge, not only to the public, but to Darwin himself. He was ‘almost convinced' of evolution, he wrote to a friend in 1844, but it was ‘like confessing to a murder,' he added. Part of Darwin had not given up on the old worldview.

Reverie during exercise allowed Darwin to shake up these received ideas, to undo the false certainty of perfection, which had held on for over twenty centuries. Obviously this required painstaking research and careful argument – one cannot simply take a turn and overthrow two millennia of doctrine. But, in combination with intellectual rigour and curiosity, Darwin's Sandwalk stroll was an opportunity to resist mental rigidity – to stretch and make supple his psychological muscles. His biographer Janet Browne wrote that this walk was ‘the private source of his conviction that his theory was true.'

Not everyone has Darwin's fondness for rain-drenched meandering; not everyone has a rambling rural path to comfortably stroll on – snow and gales or midsummer heat can rule out reverie. But, as with jogging, a spell on the treadmill is certainly better than nothing. Poet David Morley, whose poems often arise from hikes, strolls, swims and climbs, puts it neatly. ‘William Wordsworth composed poems while pacing the metres of his garden's gravel path,' he writes. ‘Solvitur ambulando – it is solved by walking.' If Wordsworth can poeticize while walking to and fro in a yard, we can certainly enjoy reverie on a treadmill or footpath. The important thing is to work the hypofrontality into professional and domestic timetables: better a stationary stroll in a nearby gymnasium or your own garage than more sitting. Those in the city can also take stairs instead of lifts: not only a harder workout, but also a good opportunity for undistracted solitude.

Tip: If you are stuck on a problem, try a walk instead of a coffee or tea break. A stroll can be more relaxing, and more helpful, than sitting still.

Animal Alertness

Why walking and not another exercise? With the exception of jogging, most sports require too much tactical calculation. Reverie arises partly because the exertion is dull, requiring a little sweat but no brains. Darwin recognized this himself. Horse riding, which he adored, was not quite banal enough to augment his mood. ‘He would say that riding prevented him thinking much more effectually than walking,' wrote Francis, ‘that having to attend to the horse gave him occupation sufficient to prevent any really hard thinking.' Darwin's placid gelding, Tommy, was an antidote to thinking, full stop. Whereas walking around his Sandwalk was a way of thinking things anew.

Likewise for running. While jogging was not, for Victorians like Darwin, a familiar exercise, it is now a regular source of reverie for millions. For example, in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, author and regular marathon runner Haruki Murakami (whom we will meet later) describes his psychological ‘void':

I run in order to acquire a void. But as you might expect, the occasional stray thought will slip into this void. People's minds can't be a complete blank. Human beings are not strong or consistent enough to sustain a vacuum. What I mean is, the kinds of thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run remain subordinate to that void. Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that void.

This is a classic description of transient hyperfrontality: a private, moving daydream, which keeps Murakami calmer, and more creative.

Walking and jogging also work at a more contemplative speed, and allow us to meditate on our surroundings. Horse riding let Darwin get quickly from place to place: from the anchored HMS Beagle to an inland jungle, or (not quite so quickly, on Tommy) from Down House to nearby Kentish valley views. And, just like a bike or car, it was exhilarating or calming, depending on the mount. But when Darwin wanted to stop and take notice, he walked. Witness his boffin's joy on the island of Santiago, off the coast of Africa:

Nobody but a person fond of Natural History can imagine the pleasure of strolling under cocoa-nuts in a thicket of bananas and coffee-plants, and an endless number of wild flowers. And this island, that has given me so much instruction and delight, is reckoned the most uninteresting place that we perhaps shall touch.

As this suggests, reverie can have an immediacy to it, which is rewarding. This too is a Darwinian point: we are creatures evolved in and with environments, and our senses and motor skills are most alive in interplay with a tactile, vibrant world. We act upon this world, and it upon us; we seek and find fulfilment in these rhythms of to and fro. To involve ourselves, bodily, in a varied and varying situation is to augment our existence a little. In this way, wrote Dewey, ‘the designs of living are widened and enriched. Fulfillment is more massive and more subtly shaded.'

This animal alertness was something Darwin had in common with the life he famously studied. ‘I remember him gently touching a flower he delighted in,' wrote Francis, ‘it was the same simple admiration a child might have.' On the Sandwalk, young squirrels ran up his back, their mum yelping from a tree. He picked up beetles (another favourite) crawling across the path; saw a sleeping fox in the ‘Big-Woods', which stared at Darwin, baffled, before it ran off. This was more than entertainment for the naturalist: it was intimate familiarity with a varied and changing world, what Dewey called ‘the multiplicity of doings and undergoings'. Reverie thrives in a dynamic environment, slowly appreciated.

The point is not that every exercise must be a bucolic adventure – we city sorts, in ‘vile, smoky places', have feet too. The point is that exercise can do more than encourage a mood of creativity. It can also give us something to be creative about. It combines reverie with intimate stimulation, and the pace to best savour it.

For example, anyone taking a long walk around their neighbourhood, after years behind the wheel, will be surprised by the quirks normally missed at rush hour. From today's school drop-off and pickup: a still dragonfly, sunning itself on a pear tree; lines of ants, marching along a suburban kerb and massing on a cherry tree outside a wool shop; the rounded geometry of a spider's web, putting a clothesline to shame.

We cannot enjoy this reverie properly if we are hunched over the handlebars, let alone travelling at fifty miles an hour behind safety glass, fiddling with the climate control. Better to savour the opportunity for gentle congress with a surprising world.

Tip: Take a walk around your neighbourhood, school or workplace, and try to find at least three surprising features. For example: novel architecture, botanical oddities or geographical puzzles.


Do we have to exercise alone for reverie? Darwin was certainly no misanthrope – witness his pleasure in strolls with Emma, when her ‘strength and weather allowed'. He also combined walking with scientific conversation. Some of the dons at Cambridge called him ‘the man who walks with Henslow', after the professor with whom he strolled. Exercise, in other words, need not be antisocial.

Still, solitude is a vital part of reverie, at least when walking or jogging outdoors. To really savour the combination of reverie and stimulation, we have to avoid distractions: even those of good company.

And far more disrupting than face-to-face sociability is something foreign to Darwin: modern telecommunications and entertainment technology. Nowadays, many pedestrians are struck by what researchers call ‘inattentional blindness'. Plugged into iPods, or pecking phones and tablets, our eyes and ears are working perfectly, but we do not necessarily see and hear what is right in front of us. Inattentional blindness can be dangerous: witness the rapid increase of pedestrian deaths recently documented in the United States. Of those victims wearing headphones, most were hit by trains. The mechanisms are not yet fully understood by neuroscientists, but distraction is certainly central to this myopia: the stimuli are received and processed by the brain, yet the conscious mind is busy with Twitter or Kanye.

This is not a cause for moral panic or Luddite lamentation, but for a certain mindfulness. However regularly we glance up the footpath and road, divided attention has large holes in it: big enough for a train to slip through. Spider webs, blue lobelia and other quotidian curiosities do not stand a chance.

Tip: Try walking without headphones, and with your phone off, or at least in your bag or pocket. If you unwittingly fiddle and paw at your phone, as I do, resist the reflex to take it out.

Having said this, treadmill walkers, snatching a stroll during lunch or after the kids are in bed, might actually benefit from headphones. While it can be rewarding to meditate quietly, reverie thrives on a little stimulation. Tactile feedback is obviously minimal on a treadmill, but music, audiobooks and podcasts can make the session more evocative and provocative. (And there are no trains to worry about.)

A Holiday on Foot

The point is to be mindful of the benefits of gentle exercise; to remember that we are doing more than tightening our thighs and calves. We are also loosening our minds, and giving them interesting things to contemplate in this state. In this, exercise can be a break from our customary narrowness. If we are not all Charles Darwin, we still have our own barnacles: duties that require ongoing, rigid thought and planning. Spreadsheet calculations, examination cramming, sales targets or the logistics of household management. What we are often lacking is not focus, but the mental ease that reverie provides: the chance to undo our usual intellectual rigidity, and allow our minds to seek novelty. In other words, exercise can be a habit that undoes habit: a way to regularly shake up our intellectual routines.

So Darwin's walks are a reminder of the joy of exercises like walking and jogging, but also of the discipline and effort required to do them well; to allow these commonplace exertions to do their psychological work. Reverie, in other words, is an achievement, not a gift. Undertaken without distraction, these ordinary exercises can actually be exceptional: daily holidays from false certainty and anaesthesia.

Copyright © 2014 by Damon Young