July 22, 2005

"The notion of a connection between physical and mental potency is, of course, silly."

Jonathan Chait frets about what he sees as President Bush's obsession with physical exercise. Bush seems to exercise an awful lot and also seems to want his associates to do the same. Why?
My guess is that Bush associates exercise with discipline, and associates a lack of discipline with his younger, boozehound days. "The president," said Fleischer, "finds [exercise] very healthy in terms of … keeping in shape. But it's also good for the mind." The notion of a connection between physical and mental potency is, of course, silly. (Consider all the perfectly toned airheads in Hollywood — or, perhaps, the president himself.) But Bush's apparent belief in it explains why he would demand well-conditioned economic advisors and Supreme Court justices.

Is it really "silly" to believe that physical exercise has mental benefits? I've heard plenty of very smart people profess that belief. Personally, I'm not interested in exercise. I'm happy to walk a lot and have good stamina, but I don't set aside time in my day just for the purpose of exercising. And all that strenuous, self-improvement stuff people do -- ugh! I'd rather improve my mind with the traditional intellectual efforts: reading, writing, stimulating conversation, and plain old thinking. (All of which I can do while walking, by the way.) So I'm not personally following the exercise-for-the-mind plan. But is it silly to think exercise is good for the mind?

I do think it's silly to think that exercise is necessary for the mind. (It would be bad news for the very old and the disabled!) Right? But perhaps it is justified to form a negative assessment about the judgment and diligence of a person who is overweight and flabby, as Bush seems to do. What do you think? Is it unfair prejudice in hiring to make inferences about the mental capacities of a person who is in bad physical shape?

49 comments:

Lawpolprof said...

Might President Bush be interested in the longevity of his appointees? Or more likely, since he apparently made similar inquiries of non-lifetime appointees, just be interested in finding a compability with his charges?

Ann Althouse said...

Yes, but he's applying these standard more widely than that, according to the article.

Dirty Harry said...

Some of the most intimidating intellects are not found in hardbodies: Christopher Hitchens, Chris Matthews, Tim Russert... To name a few.

How one presents themself may say something about their self-discipline but one can be overweight and still look classy, and vice versa.

I share Bush's love of exercise but am vain and afraid of death, not trying to improve a mind that remains as simple as pre-dumbells 5 years ago.

And I'm not sure Chait isn't just being a jerk either; taking a little info and turning it onto a typical LA Times Bash-Bush-at-any-possible-opening-athon.

The Mojician said...

There is probably a correlation between exercise and open arteries. Healthy eating habits combined with exercise have been shown to prevent and possibly even reverse the clogging of arteries. If the arteries are open, then blood and oxygen have an easier time reaching the brain. Therefore it is quite possible that physical exercise, particularly by middle-aged males, results in a better ability to think.

Ann Althouse said...

Mojican: Sounds like a cure for impotence too.

mcg said...

Well, what Jonathan Chait said was "he notion of a connection between physical and mental potency is, of course, silly." That statement is silly. Of course there is a connection. It may be weak---it certainly isn't perfect---but it's there. For Jonathan Chait to dismiss it so categorically---well, now that's silly.

If you're satisfied with your mental potency, then I see no reason to increase your physical exercise regimen to boost it. And if you're not satisfied with your mental potency, and you're a couch potato---well, I say you need to read and exercise more :)

That leaves a pretty wide middle ground.

Goesh said...

Fiddlesticks! I think the underlying, societal obsession with exercise is essentially sexual in nature - wanting to look good for a mate or potential mate. I would'nt mind going to a health club to ogle some of the young women athletes and my wife darn well knows it. Where does this notion come from that Georgie is obsessed with excercise anyway? He does some running, sure, but probably because Laura tells him to get the hell out of her sight for a while, so it's either work or go for a run. I see Bush as lazy in many respects and opting for a jog with the secret service boys instead of haggling with advisors.

knoxgirl said...

I find that when I can't run regularly because of my schedule or an injury, I definitely feel slower mentally. But I don't think that anyone who isn't exercising is somehow less mentally agile than me.

With Bush, I would guess it's the idea of the discipline behind an exercise regime that he wants to see in those who work for him. That's fine, but it's also sort of like people who expect *everyone* to suddenly get with the program and quit smoking as soon as they do.

tommy said...

well walking is a form of exercise.

One of the biggest benefits I find is it's one of few things I can do that people don't find it acceptable to interrupt. So if I manage to actually come up with a thought I can cherish it undisturbed.

Dirty Harry said...

Goesh -- Exercise has to do with a lot more than sex. It's also has to do with energy and stamina and-- Well, maybe you're right.

Nathan Hall said...

Consider all the perfectly toned airheads in Hollywood — or, perhaps, the president himself.

I must say such slipshod reasoning as this is quite amusing in the context of a petty slap at someone elses intelligence.

ploopusgirl said...

Knoxgirl: It's so sweet of you to acknowledge that those people who don't run daily aren't as mentally agile as you!

Oh, and it's "...somehow less mentally agile than I." I guess you haven't run yet today!

Ron said...

Well, I think it's still considered perfectly acceptable to attack people who are not in good physical shape. There's all kinds of posturing about this, ranging from Raising Health Care Costs, to bland aesthetic complaints, but the notion that the out of shape are fair game is still acceptable. (The defenses of them strike me as "victim" defenses, which produce their own backlash)

On the other hand, if Chiat can convience Hollywood body facists not to exercise because Bush does it, maybe we'll like them more because they'll look more like the rest of us...

Gerry said...

"But perhaps it is justified to form a negative assessment about the judgment and diligence of a person who is overweight and flabby, as Bush seems to do."

I'll have to ponder the sveltness of Rove a bit longer to determine if I agree that Bush "seems to" "form a negative assessment about the judgment and diligence of a person who is overweight and flabby..."

Similarly, I find the concept that Bush fired Lindsey because he wouldn't exercise to be suspect. After all, he hired him in the first place! And what was the context of any 'complaint' Bush uttered? Was it out of concern for the man's health, and totally not even at all in any shape or form related by Bush to his job performance?

The hit pieces are being given entirely too much serious consideration, IMO.

knoxgirl said...

Ploopusgirl:

? ? ?

Dirty Harry said...

Gerry -- "I find the concept that Bush fired Lindsey because he wouldn't exercise to be suspect. After all, he hired him in the first place!"

Heheheh. Lack of exercise may not affect one's intelligence but BushRage sure does.

On a completely different topic because you have more swing in the blogsphere than I -- check out this post: http://www.gaypatriot.net/blog/archives/000386.php

I think it's brilliant and in need of more attention than my little link can give it.

dax said...

So Jonathan Chait writes a mini-hit-piece on Bush and his "fixation" with exercise and the world is abuzz with negative angles.
Just the other day some kook was lobbying for warning lables on sodas in order to save our obese children and I swear he was on every channel with "news people" fawning all over him.
And one wonders why the MSM is losing credibility?

Gerry said...

Harry--

Even better- Glenn just linked that.

G

Dirty Harry said...

Gerry -- great! I sent it to him a few minutes before bringing it up to you.

Freeman Hunt said...

I agree with others who have said that Bush is probably looking for discipline when he looks for exercisers.

From my experience it does seem that those who exercise are, generally speaking, more disciplined that those who do not. (And as say this as one of the ones who does not.)

Pat Patterson said...

We probably should be concerned about the President's exercise regime only when he appears on TV showing off his abs or making Cabinet officers and foreign diplomats take laps around the South Lawn(remember Teddy?)

lindsey said...

When I was on anti-depressants my doctor recommended I begin regular exercising as well because it's been shown (or he claimed) that exercise helps alleviate depression. So once I finally went off the meds, I kept exercising and felt fine, but when I started getting lazy, the depression came back. Once I got my butt back in gear, the depression went away. So clearly my doctor thinks there's a link between exercise and state of mind and now I do as well. I just googled exercise and depression and there are literally a ton of links discussing this.

Simon Kenton said...

We can distinguish between stocking and using the mind. The stocking I've accomplished while exercising - say, memorizing vocabulary lists - has been of a relatively low level. That said, it seemed to be efficient - learn 200 words at 90% renention during a walk, or memorize a sonnet. But even slightly more difficult tasks, as for instance following a complex sorites via listening to books on tape while rowing, has not been as efficient. The concentration decays.

But I've noticed, not just in myself but in teams, that you can get something of the effectiveness of oneiric processing from exercise. The decay of concentration while exercising induces subtler mental state. Start a long run or ride with a particular problem to be solved, or a difficult paragraph to work out, and it soon seeps down and away from consciousness. Later, after, the answer is available, presented by the unconscious.

One use of a liberal arts education is the time you spend at shit jobs before finding a career. If you let yourself, you can use shit jobs to gain a real appreciation for the varieties of intelligence. There are inarticulate types who can somehow come up with the most amazingly intricate, sequenced construction schemes. Or come up with systems for a job site that are ... Just. You can get something of the same by serving on a board of directors for a non-profit, or volunteering for a rural fire department or water supply district. They don't think the way you think. By college standards they are often dumb. But to see all these different types of intelligence, you have to shut up and turn off the assumption that if it isn't said or preferably written, it isn't smart. The insistence that Bush is dumb because he talks dumb cuts off perception of what he actually is. Suppose - never happen - they assumed he was smart, and looked for that evidence? I could talk lemniscates around my colleagues in the shit jobs. I had to learn to shut up and call out my own uncultivated talents to hear them; if you don't know something about mechanics, how can you recognize a genius mechanic? So, isn't it at least possible Bush has noticed the problem-solving gifts that come from exercise, and wants that from and for the people he selects?

phillywalker said...

Ploopusgirl:

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says the following: "Than is both a subordinating conjunction, as in She is wiser than I am, and a proposition, as in She is wiser than me. As a subject of the clause introduced by the conjunction then, the pronoun must be nominative, and as object of the preposition than, the following pronoun must be in the objective case. Since the following verb am is often dropped or 'understoood,' we regularly hear than I and than me. Some commentators believe that the conjunction is currently more frequent than the preposition, but both are unquestionably Standard

Meade said...

"Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity."
- John F. Kennedy

I don't remember people bashing JFK for promoting physical fitness in the early sixties and establishing the President's Council on Physical Fitness. However, I do remember the word "vigor" though that may have had more to do with the pronunciation of the word than what it meant.

I suspect Bush's advice to Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson about cross-training was nothing more than the sharing of wisdom by a former runner on the dangers of over-doing it. Runners are notorious for becoming hooked on the endorphins readily released by their activity and then doing permanent damage to joints and connective tissues, usually their knees.

I do think it's unfair to make inferences about the mental capacities of someone who is not physically fit as there are a number of reasons for lack of fitness - some that are beyond an individual's control.

DannyNoonan said...

I'm pretty into running and triathlon. I'm also a law student. My triathlon friends are in awesome shape. My Law School friends, for the most part, are not. I assure you, the first group is NOT the smarter group.

Professor Althouse, can you really write while walking?

knoxgirl said...

lindsey, that is also my experience... I find there's a big difference in my mood (for the positive) if I exercise regularly.

Walter said...

Ann,

Your right, the writer was being silly. The logic that he presents to prove his point is wrong.

I have thinking type job and I find that my physical state affects my performance. When I'm tried or sick I do not do as well as when I feel good. So, if by working out in a regular basis, I start to feel better more often (or less sick more often), then my working out has helped my metal state.

On the otherhand, if I am [from the author's own words] "a toned airhead", then a workout is like to only build my body, as what would be needed to improve my mind would be to start using it.

AJ Lynch said...

It's 95 here in Philly and I am leaving the office early to take a nice long walk/hike in the Wissahickon Park. It's where I do my bestest thinking and I suggest Mr. Chait try it out.

Ann Althouse said...

Danny asks: "Can you really write while walking?" I wouldn't want to write out a first draft while walking, but I would read a print out and make notations on it while walking and I would structure and compose a first draft in my head.

chuck b. said...

I'm all for the life of the mind--you go, Ann Althouse. But I think regular exercise is an important part of a balanced life. And by exercise, I mean physical exertion, not necessarily some regimented cardio or strength training regime.

I'm not going to read the article or write GWB to confirm this, but I would like to believe the president values having a balanced life enough to inquire of a candidate for the Supreme Court whether or not he or she has one.

lindsey said...

Runners are notorious for becoming hooked on the endorphins readily released by their activity and then doing permanent damage to joints and connective tissues, usually their knees.

I think this is what Bush did do to his knees which is why he bikes now. I always knew those damn stairsteppers were evil. It's good to have a reason to avoid them.

knoxgirl, good to know I'm not alone. I think exercise can have a real effect on "mental potency" but it just depends on the person. If you're stupid to begin with, exercise isn't going to make you smarter hence Ann's "toned airhead" comment. I don't think it could really effect how smart someone is, but I could see it influencing so many other factors conducive to performance that someone who is stupid might perform slightly better because they feel better, can concentrate more, perhaps take pride in their physical appearance which could make them more optimistic, etc. The list goes on.

Charlie (Colorado) said...

Of course Jonathan Alter thinks it's silly: he knows it must be silly if W believes it.

lindsey said...

Heh. I hope Jonathan Chait reads these comments.

Kim said...

Chait: "My guess is that Bush associates exercise with discipline, and associates a lack of discipline with his younger, boozehound days."

I have a simpler explanation: Bush, like many people who are confident in their abilities but aware of their shortcomings, is attracted to people who have skills that he lacks. He seems to have difficulty riding a bicycle, ergo, he wants to maximize the chances that someone on his staff (or SCOTUS) can teach him how to ride without falling off or hitting a stationary object.

Now, I wonder if during their meeting, GW offered Judge Roberts a pretzel...

StrangerInTheseParts said...

Funny no one is mentioning the other obvious trait related to exercise: Competitiveness. I don't know if Bush likes to race other people on his bike, but I'll bet dollars to donuts he likes competing against himself. Pushing the envelope. Isn't that why he's always crashing his bike?

I think he sees in his fellow exercisers not only discipline but a fighting spirit. A kind of drivenness he can relate to.


(More speculatively: There's an anti-intellectual quality to exercise. Body oriented people (to Bush) probably seem less likely to be 'lost in their heads'.)

Ann Althouse said...

Chuck: "Regimented cardio or strength training regime"? So a regime alone is not enough. It must be a regimented regime. Why not go ever further and demand a regimented regime of regimentation? The whole thing seemed too damned regimented to me. I used to go to the health club three or four times a week and do the machines for an hour. Then one day I realized I don't want to live like that. Which is kind of my motto.

And as for "cardio" -- it never worked on me. My heartbeat or whatever never changed at all. Seemed like an immense waste of effort.

As for being "balanced" or well-rounded, I don't think exercising a lot makes people interesting. It's more likely to make people boring. They might be more alert and healthy, but what do they have to talk about? How much they can bench press and how many miles they run? There are no good conversation topics in that experience.

hygate said...

Since physical fitness corelates to increased endurance then those who are fit will be able to think more clearly when tired and under stress - at least that's what they told me in the Army while on training exercises where I would go three days with less than eight hours sleep.

chuck b. said...

"As for being 'balanced' or well-rounded, I don't think exercising a lot makes people interesting."

I said balanced, not interesting. And I didn't say exercise a lot, I said regular.

Selective reading makes people seem defensive and hostile, which is also not very interesting.

Theis said...

President Bush is renowned for evaluating people based on the vibe he gets off of them. In the face of tremendous evidence to the contrary, he's stated his confidence that Vladimir Putin is a good guy. My guess is that our exercise-obsessed President made extensive small talk with all the potential nominees, looking for the personal connection in which he invests so much currency. They talked about exercise because it's a subject of personal interest to GWB. Your body shape and level of fitness may not say much about your character, but to this President the way you shoot the poop does.

Pacific said...

My (Independent Soures) postion is that the op-ed piece was moronic. So much so in fact we've issued an Exercise Challenge to Jonathan Chait. Read about it at:
LAT Exercise Challenge

Doesn't this guy know that there is an obesity crisis in this country and that exercise is actually a good thing?

jimboman said...

George Bush has a somewhat shadowed history of alcohol dependence and a drug-use problem that he has said he simply will not discuss.

He claims that his recovery–-his commitment to stop using and abusing–-began with and is maintained by divine intervention. While this is a nice story, those who understand drug and alcohol abuse and dependence call this sort of go-it-alone sobriety delusional.

The adoption of a singular focus on a few ritual substitutes for alcohol and drugs, to the point that they induce a new kind of dependence, can be just as dangerous to the person. Worse, they can hold at bay the kinds of honesty with self and others that lead to humility, and recognition that nobody's ever recovered, merely in a process of recovering.

Exercising in moderation can be part of a healthy person's life. Moderation is the key.

We have just fininshed the 26th week of the second term of GW Bush. One hundred eighty two weeks to go. He's brittle. He's combative. He's totally self-assured. He's losing control. He's just about spent all his "political capital". He's about to jog right over the edge.

Michael said...

Anyone who says "The notion of a connection between X and mental potency is, of course, silly" is quite probably full of it.

The brain is incredibly complex. All sorts of things that "shouldn't" have an influence on it (emotions, health, foods, etc.) do. In ways we don't fully understand.

If X is "power crystals" or "psychic powers" or some other ridiculous thing, then sure, the mere notion is silly--but that applies to X affecting anything, not just X affecting brains.

For every other potential brain-modifying thing, just having a mere notion is not "of course, silly."

Also, the strawman about Hollywood airheads is foolish. No one has said physical strength is sufficient for intelligence, nor that it is necessary (as Ann points out), only that there might be some sort of relationship there.

Hecla Ma said...

It's possible that Bush was trying to ascertain if a person's discipline is characterized by their committment to exercise.

Or, it's possible he's just looking for one more person to work out with.

Chait has a lot of energy, apparently, to devote to less-than-consequential matters.

Jim H said...

It wasn't such a priority during the Taft administration.

amba said...

Exercising clears the mind. It must affect brain chemistry: yes, it elevates and evens mood, blows away depression, puts things back in perspective, leaves you feeling calm and alert.

Also, an exercise habit is a sign of discipline. Exercise is hard to make yourself start doing, so if you do it regularly anyway, it's a sign (to Bush, maybe) that you will not drop the ball when it comes to doing any of the other difficut but important things you have to do in your job and your life.

Finally, I'm sure Chait is right that Bush considers his daily exercise a kind of talisman against the lazy habits of his aimless, drinking days. As such he may be a little superstitious/compulsive about it, and he may be projecting his own need to exercise daily or fall apart morally onto others.

biff said...

Maybe it's time for a biologist to chime in. Ann asks: "Is it really 'silly' to believe that physical exercise has mental benefits?"

It's not silly at all. There's a pretty large pile of peer-reviewed literature linking exercise to improved mental performance of one sort or another. What is less clear is the specific mechanism by which the improvements occur. For example, better oxygen delivery to the brain might improve the performance of individual brain cells, or, alternately, perhaps there is some more general improvement in neural wiring.

It's also not quite clear how much of a benefit comes from exercise in general versus any specific type of exercise. For example, maybe all exercise which improves circulation has a general impact on mental performance. On the other hand, it's probably not silly at all to postulate that someone who engages in a form of exercise which requires three-dimensional reasoning or coordination (handball, lacrosse, rock climbing) might obtain a "cross-training" benefit that would transfer well to architecture, engineering, etc. (Proving it is a different question, however.)

One last point: nobody worth their salt is saying that people who exercise are more intelligent than people who do not. What does seem to be the case, however, is that each of us has our own range of performance within which we are capable of operating, and physical conditioning helps to influence where in that range we tend to perform. To dismiss this tendency is, at best, silly or naive, or, at worst, intellectually dishonest.

PS. I can only hope that DannyNoonan's quote was tongue-in-cheek. His assertion that his "triathlon friends" are not as smart as his "Law School friends" says nothing about the impact of exercise on intelligence, but it may suggest a thing or two about Mr. Noonan's ability to construct misleading arguments.

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks, Biff!

Ann Althouse said...

Again, about Biff's comments: I'm especially glad to see that "range of performance" point, which represents a key logical error made by Chait.