There was something horrific about the results of the President’s Council report on physical fitness and sports; it declared that 55% of Americans exercise. The figure surprised me; it seemed remarkably large. But then I was jumping to conclusions. Exercise, I thought, and I imagined pounding up some hill or darting from wall to wall of a squash court for an hour of concentrated physical and mental co-ordination. I read on, and the truth slipped out; for a large proportion of the 55%, walking constituted their “exercise.” I presume the remaining 45% use elevators, automobiles, telephones and mobile human beings to run out their existence.

But why should it be of importance to anyone but the individual concerned whether he or she keeps fit? The answer is that if we accept that “we are what we eat,” which is to say our eating habits affect our character, then we have also to accept that our exercising habits do likewise. There can be no doubt that we reflect our physical size and well-being and since society is the combination of all our reflections and energies it is important that as many of us as possible be fit and healthy.

To me the most natural form of exercise is running; to run you need no equipment but yourself, you need no shelter but the sky, you need no teacher but your instincts. Your energy goes directly into learning how to move with ease and grace. David Lewis (former coach for the runner Ben Jipcho) has written about the Kenyan athletes, nearly all of whom ran from childhood without thinking twice about it. Running formed the natural base of their existence in the mountains. Lewis wrote that the Kenyan’s running expressed “a zeal for living, an elan and grace, an affirmation, which needs no ponderous verbal expression, of the joys of physical achievement.”

This affirmation forms the basis of my belief that running is a vital ingredient of living. Leaf Diamant wrote in the September SUN that “life-affirming pleasure needs to become a (greater) part of one’s life.” Leaf was writing about how blocked feelings stunt us and activate depression. Running is undoubtedly one of the best ways of relieving tensions, acting out emotions and becoming aware of oneself as a physical being. The Greek ideal of physical and spiritual well-being is as valid as it ever was, and it is foolish to think we can neglect our body and expect our spiritual well-being to be unimpaired.

Psychologically, the benefits of running are numerous. There is the peace and satisfaction one relaxes into after one has been running. There is the refuge from pressure that running provides (as long as one doesn’t become obsessed with winning races). There is the increased self-confidence from working with a healthy body as against fighting a girdle-tightened lump of flesh. There is the mellowness and harmony that is generated when one runs with others (Olympic runner Gordon Pirie once suggested that before any political conference in London the delegates should be made to take a seven-mile run around Hyde Park). Then there is the sheer joy of movement, and most important of all, the increased awareness not only of one’s own body but also the environment.

How can you run through Chapel Hill without being aware of the automobiles which spit fumes in your face? Or run over the old golf course and not feel anger that yet another patch of green peace has become concrete parking lots and asphalt tennis courts? But annoyance and anger isn’t what you run for; you look for the open spaces and you learn to appreciate even more your natural surroundings. You might not stop to pick wild flowers or to gaze at the panorama, but you draw in the fresh air real deep, and you learn to listen to the birds as your breathing becomes increasingly quiet and rhythmic; you know what it’s like to leap down a hill; or come tiredly to the top and look back and feel the energy rush back to you; and above all you know what it’s like to move with ease, to surprise the rabbits and come home feeling exhilarated, not exhausted.

Then, of course, there are the physical benefits. They are at first glance deceptive. Don’t be deterred by knowing that when you run you tear your muscle tissue, metabolic wastes accumulate, blood-sugar levels drop, excessive dehydration occurs and this, in turn, causes excessive loss of electrolytes which upset the delicate balance required for efficient muscle and nerve function. What, one may wonder, is the benefit of all this destruction? The answer lies in regeneration which occurs between runs and leaves the body a little stronger than it was before. The most noticeable physical effect is that your capacity to exercise improves, your pulse lowers, your oxygen intake rate improves, and you lose weight. The reason for the latter is surprising; the physical action of running is not directly responsible. In fact, it has been estimated that it would take 35 miles of running to burn off one solitary pound of fat! Sure, you come home and weigh yourself and discover that you have lost several pounds, but that’s because of dehydration and you soon correct that. No, running reduces weight because it reduces appetite, not to a detrimental degree but to a healthy level.

A recent survey found the weight/height/fat ratio of a group of 47-year-old runners was equivalent to that of the average 22-year-old soldier or student. This may well be a startling comment on the student population but the survey should not to be taken lightly. Unnecessary overweight is the physical counterpart of spiritual Faustianism. The devil has many forms and here he appears as diabetes, coronary and gall bladder disease. Running alone is no certain protection against all these ills, but it’s worth noting that male runners appear to develop a cholesterol-lipoprotein structure that is much more common to women. This suggests that these runners are developing the same protection against heart attacks that women have.

Go out, run — but run because you enjoy it. Don’t run because you’re nightmaring about your gall bladder. If that is your stimulus, or becomes your primary motive, then I can guarantee that you’ll be a “used to get out” runner before too long. You must run to relax, to meditate, to sniff the air, to bounce up stairs, to be fit, just . . . to run. And, if you get out today, take it easy. Listen to your body, remember the word regeneration — regeneration requires time (rest) and materials (nutrition). Don’t do too much too soon and don’t expect to bounce too soon — in that first week you’ll feel about as bouncy as a carob cookie. Just take it easy; the Western concept of persistent hard work overcoming resistance does not work here. Sure you must get out regularly for there to be any purpose in running but you needn’t batter yourself to bits every day. Run fast when you want to, slow when you don’t, just keep running. And above all remember that it’s not a fight. After the first ascent of Mt. Everest, Edmund Hillary spoke triumphantly of conquering the mountain; his Sherpa (guide) Norgay put it differently: “The mountain and I together attained the heights.”