Mens Sana In Corpore Sano

It grows taller each day and whenever I glance to the right side of my desk, it reminds me that my agenda today is very different than it was eight years ago when I was preparing for my PhD studies. You see, prior to my four-year hiatus in England to work with the foremost research group in my field (oxygen uptake kinetics, a discipline under the umbrella of “exercise physiology”), I made it a point to devote time each day to reading articles that would prepare me for the challenge ahead. However, once I began publishing this research myself and returned home to teach, I no longer had time to keep up with this practice. Consequently, the stack of articles that I’d love to be reading keeps growing as I prepare lectures, grade papers and occasionally do some writing.

Yearning for an opportunity to make a dent in that stack, I sometimes fantasize about a day where I might lie in bed for all waking hours and simply read. Unlikely, but a funny thing happened a few weeks back when I awoke feeling under the weather. My wife had been ill with a 24-hour virus the preceding week and I had a feeling I was following suit. A few hours later, my fears were confirmed and as my temperature soared, I recognized that I wouldn’t be going to work this day. In fact, in all likelihood, I wouldn’t even be getting out of bed! I slept for a while, but eventually awoke and wound up staring at the ceiling for an hour. It was the perfect opportunity to start tackling those articles, but I had no interest. Eventually, I got my IPod, but instead of listening to the weekly science show that I download (and rarely have time to listen to such that six-months’ worth of these recordings, which reflects an electronic version of the article stack on my desk, is currently in reserve), I played Vortex for five hours. Now, under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t waste five minutes playing that game, but with compromised physical function, it was the only thing that appealed to my mental side. It was as if my body was saying, “We’re in this together, mind. If I’m going down, you’re coming along for the ride!”

The aforementioned is consistent with “mens sana in corpore sano,” a Latin quotation that infers a sound mind depends upon a healthy body. But one man’s experience pales in comparison to a growing body of research that lends credence to this theory. For example, Buchman et al. studied older individuals without dementia and found that total daily physical activity positively affected level of cognition, annual rate of cognitive decline and, ultimately, the risk of developing Alzheimer Disease. On the other end of the spectrum, Dwyer et al. found associations between scholastic performance and both physical activity and fitness in children aged 7-15. Although such correlation does not confirm causation, this is consistent with the notion that being more active on the playground helps kids in class. Finally, a recent Gallup poll assessing exercise habits in Americans found that least-educated respondents comprised the most sedentary demographic segment. While this is generally forwarded as evidence that the health curriculum in school teaches healthy exercise habits, a chicken/egg provocateur might argue that those who have been physically active throughout their lives are likely to become more educated as their years pass.
Mens sana in corpore sano suggests that the body “wears the pants,” but rest assured, the mind can take charge when it puts its “mind” to it. For example, it is well established that highly-trained athletes can fall victim to overtraining syndrome due to insufficient recovery with repercussions including both physical and psychological detriments. However, while excessive physical stress has long been considered the cause of this condition, Nederhof et al. explain recent findings implicating the additive effect of physical and psychological elements. For example, a sudden increase in anxiety can amplify the risk of becoming overtrained even though the physical load being endured remains the same (i.e., at a level that had been manageable). Corpore sano in mens sana, therefore, appears every bit as appropriate.

A mind cannot be productive without adequate quarters in which to function and a body is but a hollow shell if devoid of viable intellect. This synergistic relationship between mind and body should be appreciated by anyone who attempts to optimize performance of either of these aspects of our being. Consequently, regardless of whether you aspire for an Olympic goal medal or to be class valedictorian, you should dedicate a part of each day to physical betterment and a part to intellectual challenge. Now, this doesn’t mean you must run a marathon and write an opus before your day is complete, but if you take a small step toward satisfying each criterion before you retire each evening, the cumulative effect will be substantial. And to practice what I preach, I will read just one page of one of those articles tomorrow . . . after I go to the gym, that is!

This article was originally published in the Columbia Daily Spectator, which can be accessed on-line at




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