It’s the season for exercise. The urgency swells on spring’s first warm day — better prepare for swimsuit season! — and lingers until fall, at which point we can retreat to the couch and watch House of Cards.
Physical activity gets great press, especially this time of year. Workouts, we’re told, will make us feel good and look better. Nationally, first lady Michelle Obama spearheads Let’s Move!, encouraging families to help curb obesity through exercise. Locally, MassGeneral Hospital for Children has partnered with the Appalachian Mountain Club to run Outdoors Rx, wherein pediatricians write prescriptions for children to frolic outside. Similarly, Tufts University is working with the Boy Scouts of America on a program called Healthy Kids Out of School that lets Scouts earn patches for initiating simple physical activity and eating right. For adults, cycling studios are the latest craze. Our newest studio, B/Spoke, opened this month in the financial district and bills itself as a “lifestyle and fitness revolution.” The revolution costs up to $27 for 45 minutes.
Quiet time lacks similar buzz, even though it’s often free. Plenty of workaholic New Englanders consider relaxing on the beach a hedonistic treat. Meditation? If only there were time. We don’t often covet contemplation. Doctors rarely write prescriptions for self-reflection. Have you ever been ordered by a fitness trainer to just stop and exist?
This isn’t to say that physical activity is frivolous. Its benefits are known and numerous, and we need them: A report released earlier this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found only half of adults and about a quarter of kids in this state get enough physical activity.
But mental activity deserves similar recognition and respect. Lounging was once the ultimate in evolution, the provenance of geniuses and creative spirits. As Thomas Edison said: “The best thinking has been done in solitude. The worst has been done in turmoil.” Greek philosophers put forth the value of an examined life, understood in peace, and intellectuals from John Locke to Thomas Paine to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Carl Sandburg hailed its power. But when’s the last time you considered your purpose in life from a hammock?
Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner try to give deep thinking its due in their new bestseller, Think Like a Freak (a great beach read). They offer a compelling theory: Successful adults think like children. They pay attention and focus on one task at a time. In other words, they’re mini-meditators, unabashedly inwardly focused. “Kids are in love with their own audacity, mesmerized by the world around them, and unstoppable in their pursuit of fun,” they write. Too frequently, adults lose the ability to think this way, becoming distracted and derailed.
Which is why we need to ascribe physical exercise’s joy and payoff to this kind of mental agility. What if Michelle Obama launched a Let’s Meditate! campaign? (Mental health spending remains a tiny fraction of US health expenditures.) What if we were encouraged to sit still and tolerate our own internal noise — to make sense of what William James once called the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of the world? What if the Boy Scouts handed out badges for purposeful loafing?
It would be easier if more people equated the simple act of being with legitimate health benefits. Stephen Cope is scholar-in-residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox. He conducts intense meditative retreats, but one needn’t embark upon one of those to reap the benefits of downtime.
“Even by meditating 10 minutes a day, the mind eventually does begin to settle down,” Cope says. “The brain is primitive: We’re designed to scan for threat.” But with practice, we can learn to think differently — less reactively, more reflectively. “It’s a pleasant, effective way of living,” says Cope, “with huge benefits over time.” He says that reduced stress levels, greater decision-making capacity, and pain reduction are common perks.
So why don’t more of us take advantage? So long as doing trumps being, activity will masquerade as progress. In other words, we’re forever “scanning for threats” — and intellectual escape feels luxurious, even a waste. It needn’t be.
Sure, a monastic life is hardly practical, but each of us can sit alone for 10 minutes and disappear within ourselves, whether to contemplate a problem, envision a goal, or to, you know, simply exist. As Dubner and Levitt argue, successful people aren’t afraid to stop and think.
Long ago, Henry David Thoreau retreated down the road into Walden Woods seeking authenticity and enlightenment. He concluded that most people lead lives of “quiet desperation.” (He could have been referring to bathing suit season.) In summer, the traditional time of exploration, we need to make time for stillness. In fact, our minds are desperate for it.
Kara Baskin is a frequent Globe contributor and author of Boston.com’s Parent Buzz blog. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.