Damon Young on the Mental and Moral Benefits of Exercise

Dr. Damon Young is an award-winning philosopher and author. He has written twelve books including Distraction, Philosophy in the Garden and How to Think About Exercise, as well as a series of children’s picture books. His works have been translated into eleven languages. Damon has published poetry and short fiction and writes for newspapers and magazines. He is an Associate in the School of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, and Founding Faculty at the School of Life, Melbourne. Damon once played a mafia thug in a Jackie Chan film. In this interview, we discuss his background in physical activity and philosophy and the many non-physical benefits of exercise.

Greg: Tell us a little about your background. Did you play sports growing up? I know you currently practice sword-fighting—do you have any other physical practices? How did you get into philosophy?

Damon: Growing up, I did karate, tennis and jogging. I also spent a lot of time walking in the scrub between our home and the beach: cutting creepers and blackberries, looking out for snakes. I currently do historical fencing (broadsword, arming sword, rapier), as well as regular chin-ups, push-ups, kettlebells, and walking (we only just got a car after ten years as full-time pedestrians). I’d like to take up knife throwing.

I was drawn to philosophy from day one. Literally: my first day of my first year at university. The questions that the lecturer was asking—”What is a person? Is Mr. Spock a person?”—just thrilled me. And I was already someone who enjoyed argument and believed (naively) that reasonable discussion actually made things better.

Damon Young holding a sword
Damon Young preparing for fencing practice

Greg: You’ve written several children’s books as well as some contemplative philosophy books. What led you to write a philosophy book about exercise?

Damon: I was troubled by the stereotypes about jocks and geeks, “body people” and “mind people”—as if these were discrete substances, which couldn’t be brought together. I wanted to demonstrate the enormous intellectual and moral value of exercise; to show how sport and fitness needn’t be colonized by those with contempt for the life of the mind.

Greg: What are the benefits of exercise, aside from the well-known physical benefits?

Damon: In How to Think About Exercise, I discuss a number of mental benefits, from a number of exercises: walking, yoga, running, martial arts, cricket, tennis, and more. Here are a couple. Walking and running cultivate a brain state known as “hyperfrontality”, which is like a reverie or fugue state of sorts. It’s a creative state, in which we solve problems without consciously thinking about them. It’s like shaking a snowglobe, only the snow is different ideas coming together. Yoga offers an inventory of sorts: as you twist and stretch and flex, you become more aware of how your daily life is affecting your body. It’s like reading a document of your life. Yoga also encourages a kind of oneness, in which the barriers between self and world seem to melt away. We no longer feel the same stresses and anxieties. They’re still there of course, but yogic meditation offers a reprieve from the drama and gives us a little perspective: things feel smaller, more manageable.

How to Think About Exercise by Damon Young

Greg: You also mentioned the moral value of exercise. What is that?

Damon: It’s important not to be smug about this. Fit people aren’t automatically more ethical. This ought to be obvious, but there is an aura of superiority around the muscular and agile; an atmosphere of glossy righteousness.

When I say exercise has moral benefits, I mean it provides a forum to develop very specific virtues. To give one of my favorite examples, the martial arts are an excellent way to develop courage. To do well in any combat sport, you can’t be cowardly: you have to knowingly put yourself in harm’s way. But you can’t be foolhardy either, rushing into danger recklessly. You have to have to face what’s frightening, but do so carefully, and for the right reasons. This is a textbook case of bravery.

Greg: You’re also a parent. Do you have any tips for encouraging children to be physically active?

Damon: First, I try to model good behavior. It’s impossible to convince a kid that exercise is worthwhile if you’re always on the couch. Second, I try to couple exercise to leisure. If the kids want screen time, I tell them to go for a run or do some sit-ups first. Or our time together (at a cafe, or playing Warhammer, or drawing) happens after a long walk. None of this works all the time, but it’s about cultivating good general tendencies, not being a bot who always obeys the commands of authority.

Greg: What’s next for you? Do you plan to write more children’s books? More philosophy books?

Damon: I’m currently finishing a nonfiction book about sex, and next year I’m writing on parenting with Ruth, my wife. Both books are for Scribe AU/UK/US. I’m also finishing two novels for children: science-fiction adventures—they’re with UQP. I’ve also written a fantasy novel, which is currently with my agents. As is a children’s book—the beginning of a new series.

Read more about Damon Young’s work on his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram. And for more interviews like this one, check out The KineSophy Library.