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Exercise: Body Play That Benefits the Soul

A patient came to see me for the first time recently. He arrived on foot, having run from his home several miles away. As it happens, this individual runs a fair amount. I do, too. I told him as much, and he responded, “Yes, I’ve seen you out there. That is one of the reasons I chose you as a doctor.”

Runners understand one another. We love this crazy pastime that forces us out in the wind and the rain, collecting blisters and calluses. We love feeling the strength and speed of our bodies. We love letting our bodies play. We can’t comprehend why others wouldn’t want to experience this connectedness with their physical selves.

I realize that not everyone wants to, or can be, a runner. Some people have creaky knees, some have reluctant lungs. But why don’t people let their bodies play? I believe that we in the medical establishment may bear some responsibility. We tell people they must “exercise for 30 minutes, five days a week,” in keeping with the recommendations of countless health organizations. We add yet another “must do” onto their already burgeoning life lists.

Moving beyond the “must do” has benefits beyond the obvious. Exercising solo gives us a few moments alone with our thoughts. Exercising with others allows us to experience the joy of companionship. Each Thanksgiving, I run a four-miler in a nearby city with my family and thousands of others. We are a temporary community of kindred spirits, joined in holiday-relevant gratitude and glee.

Bonding with others is but one by-product of engaging in body play. When we play outside, we also have a chance to immerse ourselves in the world around us. We can appreciate firsthand the cyclical nature of the seasons: smell the late-autumn wood smoke, soak in the silence of an overnight snowfall, taste a dew-drenched summer morning. We learn that we as human organisms are as ever-changing as the universe we inhabit.

Acknowledging that we are ever-changing enables us to be more compassionate toward ourselves and others. Once we accept that we may not be as nimble, or as fast, as we either once were, or could never have claimed to be, we can begin loving the bodies we are in. We will come to understand that our fellow human (and non-human) organisms are in the same situation. We’re all just trying to move our parts in the best way we know how—and perhaps realize that there is pleasure in doing so.

Each of us must find a way to move our parts pleasurably: to let our bodies play. Call it regular exercise, call it compassion training. I myself will continue to run—out to the ocean, down by the river and on the dirt roads that traverse Maine’s forests and fields, collecting blisters and calluses as I go. I’m sure my new patient will be there, too.

We hope to see you.

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