The Importance of Physical Exercise for Writers

Writing, like chess, is a famously sedentary activity. Authors spend their days sitting hunched over a keyboard, and the only exercise they get is wriggling the fingers, wrinkling the brow and reaching for Rich Tea biscuits. As the deadline nears, the hapless keyboard-basher begins to ignore her body’s needs for sleep, social interaction and physical activity, which is no good either for her health or for the quality of her resulting work.

In 1997 the best human chess player in the world Garry Kasparov prepared to play a six-game chess match against Deep Blue, the best machine chess player in the world. Kasparov had won their first encounter the previous year, but the supercomputer was back on the stage with a heftier processor and an indecent quantity of RAM. I was twenty-one at the time, and being an Artificial Intelligence fanboy I was cheering for the machine. After five games, man and machine stood equal at 2½ games all. The sixth game, the most extraordinary chess game of history, began with Deep Blue executing a daring and very un-machine-like knight sacrifice, after which – anyway, you’re not interested in this, are you – my real point is that Garry Kasparov did a lot of physical exercise to prepare himself for an entirely mental activity. Here is an extract from an interview which Kasparov gave IBM just before the Deep Blue match.

I do a lot of physical exercises, including swimming, running, weights and other athletic training. I think it is very important for a top chess player to be as physically fit as possible. At the very highest levels, games can often be decided by whether a player was in good physical shape or not.

The quality of a book can also be decided by whether the author was in good physical shape or not. Discuss.

In 2009 my wife and I were back in England awaiting the birth of our first child. I had a book contract and a deadline and the luxury of being able to write full-time. Was it really a luxury? I don’t know. Life was less challenging than our lives in Africa, and I missed the variety of doing something different every day. The lonely hours in my attic study got to me so much that I started commuting to the public library to write. I put on three stone (forty-two pounds) in the first six months and acquired an author’s tan so pale I was practically translucent. 30,000 words into the new novel, I realized I was on the wrong track, and started again. I was unfit and unproductive.

And to think that all I needed was an antique hourglass, or its equivalent. Here is an extract from Dan Brown’s High Court testimony during that famous plagiarism case a few years ago:

For me, writing is a discipline, much like playing a musical instrument. It requires constant practice and honing of skills…If I’m not at my desk by sunrise, I feel like I’m missing my most productive hours. In addition to starting early, I keep an antique hourglass on my desk and every hour break briefly to do push-ups, sit-ups and quick stretches. This helps keep the blood, and ideas, flowing.

Press-ups every hour on the hour – now there’s a practical tip for writers of all kinds. Here’s another zinger, the Couch to 5k running plan. Most people try jogging and then stop because it’s too hard. Chances are they’re doing too much too soon. Couch to 5k is a not so much a running plan as a walking-and-running plan, and it’s excellent, enabling a gradual build-up of fitness that will benefit your heart valves and your Work In Progress.

Jogging in Africa is considered almost as odd as reading on public transport. When I first started jogging in the afternoons, I was flagged down by an old Fulani herder. A walaa haaju, he said. You have no need to be doing that.

‘What do you mean?’ I panted.

‘There are only two reasons for a man to run,’ he replied. ‘Either there is someone behind him with a big stick or there is a grain distribution in front of him.’

The old herder had clearly forgotten the all-important third reason – the potentially bestselling novel – but I didn’t argue the point. Now I run in the grey calm of the early morning before the prayer call sounds from the minaret. There’s nobody around at that time, and I get to see some beautiful sunrises. I’m not at 5k yet, but I’m enjoying it – I think.

If you sit down for a living, do your body a favour. Get up and stretch. Go for a walk. Learn capoeira. Hang upside down. Your work will be better for it.

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