Exercise and Athletics

A healthy person who is fit and free to do whatever he pleases should not feel bound to follow any particular regime, or to have his own doctor or masseur. He should have a varied lifestyle, sometimes in the countryside, sometimes in the city, but he should spend most time on his farm. He should go on voyages, hunt, and relax, but he should spend a lot of time exercising. Idleness dulls the body and brings a premature old age, whereas work strengthens the body and prolongs youth (Celsus, On Medicine 1.1).

Frail people, and that includes a large percentage of city-dwellers and almost everyone who is keen on literature, must be especially careful to take steps to restore what they lose through their physical condition, or their environment, or their study habits (Celsus, On Medicine 1.2).

Daily exercise of the voice through speaking aloud is a wonderful way to ensure not just health but also strength. I am not referring to the strength that wrestlers have, the sort that merely adds flesh and makes the outside of the body solid, the way walls support a house. I mean strength that gives deep-seated vigor and real energy to the most vital and important parts of the body. … Reading aloud stands in the same relation to discussion as oscillation does to actual participation in exercises; it is as if the process of reading swings the voice softly and gently this way and that in the chariot, as it were, of someone else’s words. A discussion, on the other hand, brings in an element of earnest competition, engaging the mind, not just the body. Even so, one has to guard against vehement and convulsive shouting, since the uneven and strained expulsion of the breath causes ruptures and spasms (Plutarch, Advice on Preserving One’s Health 130b).

The only way to ensure the health of both the body and the soul is by not moving the soul without the body nor the body without the soul, so as to ensure that they keep each other in check and are balanced and healthy. A mathematician or anyone engaged in any other intense mental activity should take time to exercise his body through physical training, and likewise a person who is devoted to physical development should take time to exercise his soul by studying music and the whole range of intellectual pursuits. This applies to anyone who intends to earn a reputation as a gentleman (Plato, Timaeus 88b).

Galen devoted a short treatise to playing ball games as an inexpensive and safe way to keep fit. In On Exercise with a Small Ball (Minor Writings 1.93), he expressed his conviction that most gymnastic exercises, by contrast, are counterproductive, leading to fatty deposits such as can even inhibit breathing. People who exercise that way are not likely to be good military or political leaders; it would be better to give such responsibilities to a pig.

Philostratus blames the rise of the medical profession for the decline in athletic standards. In the old days, athletes lived on a simple and unfussy diet. Because of this they were able to train without becoming ill, and they aged only very slowly, competing in eight or even nine Olympiads, and fighting bravely in the hoplite ranks. … They made their military service their training for athletic contests, and they made their athletic contests their training for their military service.

If a man is not interested in having children, but is keen on winning victory crowns at the games or is engaged in some other such pursuit to which he recognizes that sexual intercourse is detrimental, then nothing would be of greater benefit to him than the excision of his testicles. It is time therefore for us to excise the testicles of Olympic athletes (Galen, On Semen 4.571K).

Athletes live just the way pigs do, except that pigs do not overexert or force feed themselves (Galen, Exhortation to the Arts 1.28K).