As the evolution of technology continues to outpace the ability of our natural biological systems to adapt, it's worth considering how these changes might be impacting our psychological health. What effects, for example, might the world's increasingly sedentary lifestyles be having on our well-being and performance? Increasingly we're learning that while historically man has attempted to separate mind and body, research is showing that this is a misleading separation which doesn't reflect on the strong bi-directional link between the two. For example, what you might or might not have had for breakfast this morning could impact a crucial decision that you make in the afternoon. Alternatively, if you're feeling very stressed or depressed, this could compromise your immune system and leave you more vulnerable to illness.
Amidst all of these changes it's important to look back at the place of sports and fitness activities in our lives; Not only to understand what evolution might have prepared us for, but to encourage a physically and mentally healthy society that ultimately benefits us all. I recently came across a near twenty year old journal article by Donald Siegel, Professor of Exercise and Sport Studies at Smith College, which remains eerily relevant today, if not more so than when it was first written.
What rationale exists for physical activity being a useful medium for attaining psychological stability? One theme comes from anthropologists who tell us that humans evolved over thousands of years to become creatures designed predominantly for hunting and gathering (e.g., Groos, 1901). Yet, in only the last several hundred years has the need for pursuing such activities been virtually eliminated, leaving us with bodies designed for certain purposes, and a physical and social environment not designed to meet those physical needs. Some theorists see this as the essential problem of modern life. Part of us lays dormant, but needs to be used more fully and screams out for attention. Unfortunately, because of the way we have changed our lifestyles, this part gets suppressed or neglected and may periodically surface in different forms to cause problems.
Siegel goes on to mention the work of the late Dr. George Sheehan, writer of a number of best-selling books on the sport of running. Sheehan's own life story is highly noteworthy and serves as inspiration for the generations which might not be as familiar with his accomplishments.
Sheehan was born in 1918, the oldest of a doctor's 14 children. In his youth he was an outstanding student and a track star. He later became a cardiologist like his father, and after medical school served as a Navy doctor on board a battleship in World War II. He rediscovered fitness in middle age after becoming "bored" with medicine and getting "bombed out" every weekend, falling asleep in front of the TV. He went back to reading philosophy and became particularly interested in the works of Irenaeus, one of the early Church Fathers, who wrote that the "The glory of God is man fully functioning." This inspired Sheehan to get back to running, starting life anew with the mantra that "Man at any age is still the marvel of the universe." In five years time he would go on to run a 4:47 mile, which at the time was the world's first sub-five-minute mile run by a 50-year-old.
Recognising the profound transformation that being physically active had made to his life, Sheehan went on to propose "some simple ideas about what we need as human beings, what we seem to be missing, and how and why involvement in physical activity can lead to a happier and healthier life." Siegel goes into slightly greater depth on these points, but you will find a brief summary below:
1. We Need to Be "Good Animals"
Humans need physical stimulation, just as they need cognitive stimulation, and to neglect either is a formula for disaster.
2. We Need to Play
Play should characterise all of life, not just the earlier and later days. Also, a person can have a playful attitude even when performing utilitarian types of tasks. Involvement in sports and fitness-oriented activities as adults not only helps us become involved in play, but may also help us transfer the play element to our work. This can make us more productive and content.
3. Creativity is Reinforced Through Physical Activity
We all need to be "artists." By participating in sport and fitness activities we can activate creative forces within ourselves and once unleashed, these forces also transfer to things that we do outside of the sport and fitness setting.
4. We Can Find Out If We Are Heroes and Heroines
Involvement in various physical activities is self-defining, as it provides us with opportunities to test ourselves and to find out how we respond when the pressure is on. Once we find out who we are, we can all learn to become what we wish to be.
I recall toiling up a mountain in a 10-mile race in Durango and having the runner beside me say, 'It's so beautiful here.' I took a brief look at the peaks around us and the river in the canyon a thousand feet below, said 'Yes' and got back to work. My end is not simple happiness. My need, drive, and desire is to achieve my full and complete self. . . . The problem in motivation is not the dedication and effort and sacrifice needed to get what we want, it is knowing what it is we could and must want to begin with.
Dr. George Sheehan (Personal Best)
If a cardiologist (quite possibly one of the most demanding of jobs), could also find the time to be a successful active athlete, then few if any of us have the excuse not to integrate sports and fitness activities into an essential element of our lives. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates once wrote that "it is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable" - In that and George Sheehan's spirit, we owe it to ourselves to be the absolute best that we can possibly be.
Photo: Chris Drumm