By Eric Olsen
I came of age at a time when a lot of us believed that writers were supposed to be tormented and dissolute, or dissolute so they can become tormented. After all, doesn’t great Art come from great torment? The writer suffering for his or her Art and all that sort of thing? An overweight Hemingway with his bottle of hooch, blowing his brains out with a shotgun at the age of 62 in a fit of alcoholic depression? How romantic! Or Hunter S. Thompson and his drunken, drug-adled ravings, trashing hotel rooms while on assignment for Rolling Stone? Gosh, didn’t everyone want to write for Rolling Stone and trash a hotel room way back when? I sure did. Or how about Jack Kerouac, dead at 47 of cirrhosis; and Fitzgerald gone at 44, heart attack and alcoholism; and Faulkner dead at 64, still more alcoholism, and…. well, I could go on and on. And on.
These were my heroes! I wanted to be just like them! (If you want to learn about more great drunken writers, check out this list of top 15.
Certainly regular exercise wasn’t part of the program. It’s damn hard to work out when you’re hung over. Take my word for it.
And besides, isn’t it also true that writers who get the most work done, those who publish the most and to the most acclaim, those who get the movie deals and great reviews in the New York Times, are the writers who can keep their butts in the chair for hours a day, day after friggin’ day, writing, or at least staring at the blank page waiting for an idea to come, which is as much a part of the creative process as actually putting down the words? You gotta have the talent, sure, but talent’s only part of the equation; the real key is consistency and determination and butt in chair. Butt in chair, that is, until it’s time to knock off, get up, and stroll down to the corner bar for that first drink of the day….
Who has time to jog, ferkrissakes!?
Other than Joyce Carol Oates, that is. Her literary output to date probably totals more than that of all my ruined heroes put together, and somehow she also finds time to run regularly. She even finds time to write about running and writing, in an essay by that title in her collection, The Faith of a Writer (ECCO/HarperCollins, 2003). “Stories come to us as wraiths,” she writes, “requiring precise embodiments. Running seems to allow me, ideally, an expanded consciousness in which I can envision what I’m writing as a film or dream…”
Setting aside for the moment any discussion of the health hazards of an excess of hooch, there’s no question now that an excess of sitting and a lack of exercise can lead to all sorts of the so-called “diseases of civilization,” including heart disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and even some types of cancer. And perhaps what’s worse for a writer, it’s now becoming very apparent that lack of exercise can also make you stupid, and even raise your risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and other types of dementia as you get older.
After two years in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I became a free-lance magazine writer to support my fiction habit, and while I’d write about anything for a buck, I somehow ended up specializing in health, nutrition, and fitness, contrary to my earnest desire to emulate my heroes, at least when it came to dissolution. I even jogged, and wrote hundreds of articles about what to eat and how and why to exercise and all that. I once wrote an article titled “Pumping Irony” for a running magazine in which I argued — rather credibly, I thought, if I do say so myself — that exercise, and specifically running in this case, makes you more creative. This was nearly 30 years ago. I interviewed all sorts of creative types who also ran about how the running helped their writing, among them the poet Marvin Bell, on the faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and at the time a marathoner. “When I first came to the workshop years ago,” he recalled, “we had our offices in old barracks by the river that runs across campus, and my office was just down the hall from Kurt Vonnegut’s. Sometimes, I’d walk by his door and he’d be inside doing chin-ups from one of the pipes hanging down from the ceiling. At first, I figured he was crazy, then one day I realized he was thinking.”
In 1995, after still more articles on the topic of exercise, health, and longevity, I wrote a book about it all with Ralph Paffenbarger, MD, PhD. The book was titled LifeFit. It was based on Paff’s College Alumni Health Study, aka the “Harvard Study,” that followed several thousand college alumni for decades, from youth into middle and now old age, exploring the cause-and-effect links between their lifestyle habits — including levels of physical activity, diet, consumption of booze, and smoking — and their risk of disease and mortality. Paff’s study was one of the first and certainly one of the most definitive to show that those individuals who remained physically active, or who become physically active even late in life, were on average healthier and lived longer than their sedentary peers. Compared with the lolligaggers, the more active alumni had a much lower risk of those “diseases of civilization.” All of this, we declared in a rather clever tagline, added more years to your life and more life to your years.
Even those alumni in the study who were overweight and smoked and drank were somewhat protected from their bad habits if they also managed to get some regular exercise.
In the book, we suggested that working out could also cut your risk of depression and might even make you smarter, but at the time the data on this were a bit iffy.
But now the data aren’t at all iffy. And now I’m revising and updating LifeFit, and thus, to find out what’s new, earlier this month I ended up at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Indianapolis — home of Kurt Vonnegut, by the way, he of the chin-ups, and do be sure to check out the Kurt Vonnegut Library if you’re ever in town.
The ACSM meeting was a gathering of hundreds of physicians, nurses, physical therapists, exercise physiologists, coaches, athletes, and others with an interest in sports, sports medicine, and health and fitness. One of the sessions I attended at the meeting was titled “Is Exercise Medicine for Alzheimer’s Disease?” It was fascinating. Now the data are clearer than ever: Lack of exercise, that is too much time with butt in chair, can make you stupid. It can actually shrink your brain. Conversely, people who exercise not only build muscle, they build brain tissue. They get smarter. And they build reserves of gray matter that might help prevent or delay dementia as they get older.
The part of the brain called the hippocampus seems to be particularly responsive to exercise. This is the part of the brain that is involved in memory formation. In those who don’t get much exercise, the hippocampus is more likely to shrink. When it shrinks enough, the result is Alzheimer’s. Conversely, exercise has now been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus. There’s some evidence that even in older adults (and older writers, too, let’s not forget) who’ve experienced some shrinkage, exercise can stop and often reverse the deterioration.
So what’s a writer to do? A writer has to keep that butt in chair to get any work done, sure, but realistically, how much time can a guy sit there staring at the blank page? My wife Cheryl and I are good for a couple hours in the morning, then we both head to the gym for an hour every day, then back to the blank page. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), recommends at least 150 minutes of “moderately vigorous” exercise a week. That’s a total of just two-and-a-half hours. By “moderately vigorous,” the CDC means something like a brisk walk or anything that gets your heart rate up and works big groups of muscles, say 30 minutes a day five days a week. The CDC also recommends another 75 minutes or so each week of strength training. This is pretty much what Paff and I recommended 25 years ago in LifeFit. And we’re not talking all that much; in the good old days, I could easily spend 150 minutes in a single evening bellied up to the bar…. I’m sure my heroes could, too.
I suppose I should point out that Oates doesn’t have much use for walking. For her, it’s about running, as she says in “Running and Writing:” “Walking, even fast, is a poor second to running, as all runners know, that we’ll resort to when our knees go, but at least it’s an option.”
She has a point. CDC’s recommendations are the minimum needed to get the most benefits for sweat dripped, but the benefits continue to add up with more time spent sweating, and the more intense the workout, the better, at least until the law of diminishing returns kicks in, or the knees give out….
Researchers presenting their data at the ACSM meeting added further refinements to the CDC recommendations, suggesting that if you do spend a lot of time everyday sitting, it’s a good idea to get up every 30 minutes or so and take a brisk walk of as little as two minutes, regardless how much you work out other times. Better yet, stand up while you work (and we’ll ignore for the moment the fact that Hemingway himself, not the best of examples, stood when he worked….). Cheryl even has a treadmill desk. She’ll put in another hour or two on that in the afternoons, walking while she writes. How cool (and healthy) is that?
What do you do for a workout? Has it helped your writing?