You Need This Practice In Your Life

Several years ago I was swimming in a pool in Austin—I wish I could say it was Barton Springs, one of the wonders of the world or even the Los Angeles Athletic Club (photographed above), but it was actually a 24 Hour Fitness off I-35—and a reader recognized me as I was getting out of the water.

I’m reading your book Ego is the Enemy, they said.

That’s funny, I replied, because I wrote it in this pool.

They gave me a weird look, but I think most writers would know exactly what I was talking about.

Having a physical practice is essential to the creative life.

Not just because it gets you up and out of a chair. Not just because it’s good to stay in shape. But because when the body is in motion, the mind can really get to work.

My routine then—it’s a little different now that I have kids, as I’ve written and talked about—was to write in the morning until I hit a point of diminishing returns. Then I’d either go for a swim, or put on my running shoes and go for a run. Depending on what time it was or whether I was writing from my home or my office, I ran one of a few go-to routes. The purple, red and gray trails in the eerie elephant graveyard of the burned-out forest of Bastrop State Park. The seven or ten mile loops along Lady Bird Lake in Austin. Or, if it’s already started to get dark, up 11th to do laps around the lit up Texas State Capitol and then down Congress to Cesar Chavez and back.

Lately, I’ve been doing my runs in the morning. I’ve been biking more than I did before because of the ankle injury. I’ve been doing more weight training, too.

I try every day to keep my practice because, as the Jews say of the Sabbath, it keeps me.

Regardless of what time, where, how far or for how long, going on a run or a ride or a swim almost always goes well. With writing, it’s the opposite. Professional writers quickly learn one reality of the job: you have more bad days than good days. It’s the rare day that the writer finds that the words come out exactly the way they were in their head. More often, one is disappointed, distracted, struggling, committed but unproductive. Therefore, the writer needs a physical practice, something that reliably goes well and gives one a sense of accomplishment, to counterbalance the mercurial muses of the creative professional. “The twin activities of running and writing,” prolific author Joyce Carol Oates writes in her ode to running, “keep the writer reasonably sane and with the hope, however illusory and temporary, of control.”

It can hurt sometimes, but even when it does, you feel good after.

A physical practice doesn’t have to be running. “If an action tires your body and puts your heart at ease,” Xunxi said, “do it.” As I said, I like to swim. I like riding my bike. I do weights sometimes. But for you, maybe it’s jujitsu. Maybe it’s yoga. Maybe it’s stand up paddle boarding. But it’s got to be something.

In one of his little books, Painting as a Pastime, Churchill talks about how he discovered painting after a nervous breakdown following the Great War. This little pastime changed his life, got him outside, got him to slow down. “The cultivation of a hobby and new forms of interest is therefore a policy of first importance to a public man,” he explains. “To be really happy and really safe, one ought to have at least two or three hobbies, and they must all be real.”

Hobbies are great, but I do think there is something insufficient about scrapbooking. Photography is cool. So is baking and fantasy football. But in addition to his more cerebral hobbies, Churchill would have also benefited from golf or cycling or tennis, as his famously rotund figure indicates. (He liked to dabble in bricklaying, which I guess counts, but it’s hard to recommend).

At least his painting got him outdoors. He probably had to hike for a few of those landscapes he captured. Still, there is something about cardio–or any form of strenuous exercise–that’s just magic.

One of Churchill’s predecessors knew this well. In Stillness is the Key, I tell the story of William Gladstone, the four-time prime minister of England, who loved to chop down trees on his estate. For hours on end, to escape the stresses of high office, he would head to the forest with an axe in hand. He once spent two full days working on an elm tree with a girth of some sixteen feet. The process consumed him, leaving him no time to think of anything but where the next stroke of his axe would fall.

This arboreal activity was a way to rest a mind that was often wearied by politics and the stresses of life, a challenge for which effort was always rewarded and with which his opponents could not interfere. Without the lessons he learned in those woods—about persistence, about patience, about the importance of momentum and gravity—could he have fought the long and good fight for the causes he believed in? (And to be clear, he would use the wood from these trees and actually his sons sometimes sold chips from them to raise money for charity).

“We treat the body rigorously,” Seneca said, “so that it’s not disobedient to the mind.” That sounds a little aggressive, because in my experience, the physical practice is actually quite kind to the mind. Some days, it turns it off in a very restorative way. Other days, it lets it wander and work on things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of a great line or solved an intractable writing problem after I stopped writing and went for a run or swim. I even had the idea for this article while on a run through the sleepy afternoon streets of Bastrop, Texas near my bookstore. In any case, it’s a break from screens, from most inputs, and from other people. (Running while listening to a podcast and reading the cable news cirons that scroll across the TV screen at the gym is a nightmare IMO).

The Buddhists talk of “walking meditation,” or kinhin, where the movement after a long session of sitting, particularly movement through a beautiful setting, can unlock a different kind of stillness than traditional meditation. Deliberate, repetitive, ritualized motion, therefore, can serve as an exercise in peace that lays groundwork for creative breakthroughs.

It doesn’t matter what you do. It doesn’t matter where you live. You need to cultivate a physical practice.

Because it centers you. Because it challenges you. Because it’s hard. Because it’s a form of rest. Because it makes you better.

“Obviously the philosopher’s body should be well prepared for physical activity,” the Stoic Musonius Rufus explained, “because often the virtues make use of this as a necessary instrument for the affairs of life. We use the training common to both when we discipline ourselves to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, meager rations, hard beds, avoidance of pleasures and patience under suffering. For by these things . . . the body is strengthened and becomes capable of enduring hardship, sturdy and ready for any task.”

If greatness is our aim, if we want to be productive, if we want to be capable of enduring the affairs of life, we need to take care of our bodies. We need to be strong and sturdy. We need to keep a physical practice so that it keeps us.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.