Staying Intellectually Fit — Five Practices

One of the challenges of entering one’s seventh decade is staying physically fit and supple. I hear a good deal about core strength, flexibility, healthy diet,and cardio-vascular health. Truth be told, I could be doing more in some of these areas, but that’s for another post!

Source: jonathankurten.com

Source: jonathankurten.com

An aspect of life I hear much less about is staying intellectually fit. Here are some thoughts that might parallel some of the practices we pursue for physical health.

1. Work out with somebody else. What I have in mind here is that people decline mentally as well as physically when they are isolated. Pursuing some mentally engaging activity with others — whether a book group, a painting group, a choral group (all pursuits of mine!), or some other interest group that involves people and conversation — all that can help keep us mentally fit.

2. Healthy diet is important for our minds as well. A little “mind candy” is probably something all of us indulge in. A steady diet of “mind candy” might not be so helpful. A balanced intellectual diet might mean not getting all our mental stimulation from one source, like the television, or graphic novels. Mixing that up with books, discussions with friends, and different perspectives are all important. I would also suggest not being a “junkie” in any one area–particularly a news junkie! That seems to me to be a prescription for depression.

3. Are you developing your “core strength”? What I take this to mean is cultivating the core convictions and practices around life’s most basic issues, whatever those might be for you. For me as a Christian, this involves things like prayer, reading of scripture, self-examination, and the regular practice of gratitude. “Core strength” seems to me critical to navigating the challenges of getting older and those who haven’t addressed this sometimes spend their later years very badly and unhappily.

4. Attending to our mental “cardio” health seems vital as well. We can experience a “hardening” of our thought life when we nurse bitterness, anger, unforgiveness, or resentment. Similarly, I’ve watched people develop skewed views of reality where they worry themselves about conspiracies, rivalries, or killer bugs on every surface. All this impinges on how we think and hear the ideas of others. Mental “cardio” involves letting go of anger and bitterness, and, at least for me, trusting that I will live as long as God wants me to and realizing that worry will probably only shorten my life, not lengthen it.

5. Mental flexibility is another quality that sometimes seems to deteriorate with age. It is easy to begin to think in ruts. After all, it took us six decades to get to where we are, why change now? One thing I try to do is replay those mental tapes from when I was in my 20s that said, “I never want to become an old ‘stick in the mud'”! All of us knew people like that. The question is, are we becoming like that? Some of this is trying new things–for me this has been in the area of art. I still don’t think I have much artistic talent, but drawing makes me see things differently, and that is good. Do you just read the writers who agree with you or get all your news from one news outlet with a particular perspective? While disagreement can be uncomfortable, it also enlarges my view of the world and at very least helps me see why someone could see things so differently than I.

You may have thought I’d be trying to tell you to read lots of books! While I think books have a place in intellectual vitality, I think it goes far beyond books to a healthy lifestyle of intellectual fitness.

How have you sought to foster intellectual vitality in your life?

2 thoughts on “Staying Intellectually Fit — Five Practices

  1. For me, stories are very important — written and otherwise, fiction and non-fiction — and seem to attend to all five dimensions you mention, Bob. To enter someone else’s world and the imaginative space that that opens up provides real intellectual refreshment and stimulation. There are several studies showing that reading fiction can foster emphathy — no doubt only the tip of the iceberg when you consider all the ways in which we learn stories.

    • Arthur, thanks for this comment. I agree! Fiction allows us to step out of our worlds to explore how others see the world. We needn’t agree to understand and this can make us more empathetic to people in real life.

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