A Guide to Health/Part 1/Chapter 7

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Chapter VII


Exercise is as much of a vital necessity for man as air, water and food, in the sense that no man who does not take exercise regularly, can be perfectly healthy. By "exercise" we do not mean merely walking, or games like hockey, football, and cricket; we include under the term all physical and mental activity. Exercise, even as food, is as essential to the mind as to the body. The mind is much weakened by want of exercise as the body, and a feeble mind is, indeed, a form of disease. An athlete, for instance, who is an expert in wrestling, cannot be regarded as a really healthy man, unless his mind is equally efficient. As already explained, "a sound mind in a sound body" alone constitutes true health.

Which, then, are those exercises which keep the body and the mind equally efficient? Indeed, Nature has so arranged it that we can be engaged in physical as well as mental work at the same time. The vast majority of men on earth live by field-labour. The farmer has to do strenuous bodily exercise at any cost, for he has to work for 8 or 10 hours, or sometimes even more, in order to earn his bread and clothing. And efficient labour is impossible unless the mind is also in good condition. He has to attend to all the many details of cultivation; he must have a good knowledge of soils and seasons, and perhaps also of the movements of the sun, the moon, and the stars. Even the ablest men will be beaten by the farmer in these matters. He knows the state of his immediate surroundings thoroughly well, he can find the directions by looking at the stars in the night, and tell a great many things from the ways of birds and beasts. He knows, for instance, that rain is about to fall when a particular class of birds gather together, and begin to make noise. He knows as much of the earth and the sky as is necessary for his work. As he has to bring up his children, he must know something of Dharma Sastra. Since he lives under the broad open sky, he easily realises the greatness of God.

Of course, all men cannot be farmers, nor is this book written for them. We have however, described the life of the farmer, as we are convinced that it is the natural life for man. To the extent to which we deviate from these natural conditions, must we suffer in health. From the farmer's life we learn that we should work for at least 8 hours a day, and it should involve mental work as well.

Merchants and others leading a sedentary life have indeed, to do some mental work, but their work is too one-sided and too inadequate to be called exercise.

For such people the wise men of the West have devised games like cricket and football, and such minor games as are played at parties and festive gatherings. As for mental work the reading of such books as involve no mental strain is prescribed. No doubt these games do give exercise to the body, but it is a question if they are equally beneficial to the mind. How many of the best players of football and cricket are men of superior mental powers? What have we seen of the mental equipment of those Indian Princes who have earned a distinction as players? On the other hand, how many of the ablest men care to play these games? We can affirm from our experience that there are very few players among those who are gifted with great mental powers. The people of England are extremely fond of games, but their own poet, Kipling, speaks very disparagingly of the mental capacity of the players.

Here in India, however, we have chosen quite a different path! Our men do arduous mental work, but give little or no exercise to the body. Their bodies are enfeebled by excessive mental strain, and they fall a prey to serious diseases; and just when the world expects to benefit by their work, they bid it eternal farewell! Our work should be neither exclusively physical nor exclusively mental, nor such as ministers merely to the pleasure of the moment. The ideal kind of exercise is that which gives vigour to the body as well as to the mind; only such exercise can keep a man truly healthy, and such a man is the farmer.

But what shall he do who is no farmer? The exercise which games like the cricket give is too inadequate, and something else has to be devised. The best thing for ordinary men would be to keep a small garden near the house, and work in it for a few hours every day. Some may ask, "What can we do if the house we live in be not our own?" This is a foolish question to ask, for, whoever may be the owner of the house, he cannot object to his ground being improved by digging and cultivation. And we shall have the satisfaction of feeling that we have helped to keep somebody else's ground neat and clean. Those who do not find time for such exercise or who may not like it, may resort to walking, which is the next best exercise. Truly has this been described as the Queen of all exercises. The main reason why our Sadhus and Fakirs are strong as a class is that they go about from one end of the country to the other only on foot. Thoreau, the great American writer, has said many remarkable things on walking as an exercise. He says that the writings of those who keep indoors and never go out into the open air, will be as weak as their bodies. Referring to his own experience, he says that all his best works were written when he was walking the most. He was such an inveterate walker that four or five hours a day was quite an ordinary thing with him! Our passion for exercise should become so strong that we cannot bring ourselves to dispense with it on any account. We hardly realise how weak and futile is our mental work when unaccompanied by hard physical exercise. Walking gives movement to every portion of the body, and ensures vigorous circulation of the blood; for, when we walk fast, fresh air is inhaled into the lungs. Then there is the inestimable joy that natural objects give us, the joy that comes from a contemplation of the beauties of nature. It is, of course, useless to walk along lanes and streets, or to take the same path every day. We should go out into the fields and forests where we can have a taste of Nature. Walking a mile or two is no walking at all; at least ten or twelve miles are necessary for exercise. Those who cannot walk so much every day can at least do so on Sundays. Once a man who was suffering from indigestion went to the doctor to take medicine. He was advised to walk a little every day, but he pleaded that he was too weak to walk at all. Then the doctor took him into his carriage for a drive. On the way he deliberately dropped his whip, and the sick man, out of courtesy, got down to take it. The doctor, however, drove on without waiting for him, and the poor man had to trudge behind the carriage. When the doctor was satisfied that he had walked long enough, he took him into the carriage again, and explained that it was a device adopted to make him walk. As the man had begun to feel hungry by this time, he realised the value of the doctor's advice, and forgot the affair of the whip. He then went home and had a hearty meal. Let those who are suffering from indigestion and kindred diseases try for themselves, and they will at once realise the value of walking as an exercise.