Alan Latham: The French intellectuals are wrong: running is good for the mind

Friday 07 November 2008 01:00
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In June 2007, soon after the election of the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, a debate broke out in the French media about their new president's jogging habit. "Western civilisation," the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut claimed on national television, "in its best sense, was born with the promenade. Walking is a sensitive, spiritual act," while "jogging is management of the body. The jogger says I am in control. It has nothing to do with meditation."

In a similar vein the daily newspaper Libération wondered, "Le jogging est-il de droite?" (Is jogging right wing?). There is a prejudice towards sustained physical recreation activity that is deep-seated in the European intellectual tradition.

If you consider the European argument a little more closely it's quite disturbing. It suggests that at some quite low threshold of physical activity the mind loses its capacity for thought. It also suggests that people who engage in physical activity are celebrating a form of brute thoughtlessness.

So is running stupid? Writers in the 1960s explored the kind of mental states that running seemed to engender. And running, far from being exhausting and all-absorbing developed a reputation for creating a meditative effect.

In the mid-1970s, researchers in California began exploring non-Western approaches to knowledge, and described a relationship between sport and the further reaches of the mind and spirit. Mike Spino, a sports analyst and track coach, described it as "beyond jogging to the inner spaces in running".

What Spino tried to do was explore the way the body's movement can be used to both make one a better runner and discover oneself. He was not alone. Dr George Sheehan, perhaps the most famous of the jogging gurus and author of Running and Being, wrote, with no sense of irony: "When I run the road, I am a saint. The distance runner is a prophet."

Beyond the hucksterism, Sheehan was a cardiologist for whom running was a way of gaining perspective. And his idea, that exercise can improve mental aptitude, has been born out by subsequent scientific research.

Dr Alan Latham was speaking at the Lunchtime Lecture series at University College London

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