Revenge of the jock

Attending a math conference, surrounded by thousands of mathematicians, during last week has brought this to the forefront of my mind. Surprisingly, a large number of mathematicians are slender or fit. Surely many of them exercise regularly. Perhaps some have a high metabolism despite being elderly. And I assume many of them are just very health-conscious in their dietary habits. At any rate, there are very few I have seen at this conference who appear to be athletic. Most are either skinny or fat. There are only a few who have obviously defined, noticeable muscles.

Whatever the reason for this phenomenon, I wish to give my own personal perspective on the matter. I grew up believing that “jock” and “nerd” were anti-types. That someone could be one or the other but not both. Society teaches this in many ways. There are countless depictions in our media (movies, tv shows, etc) of nerds being skinny, having glasses, and not having time for physical activity (or possibly that such menial behavior is beneath them). Similarly, depictions of athletes who are stupid and appear to have no cognitive function beyond what their sport of choice requires—simple-minded. It was not a difficult choice for me. I knew that if I were to embrace one of those two archetypes I wanted the nerd option.

So, I grew up essentially despising athletics. People who have big muscles are dumb, so I didn’t want big muscles. I embraced the weak, nerdy option. I participated in track in 7th grade and enjoyed it. Many of the other guys on the track team were nerdy and I appreciated getting to know them. In 8th grade I started the season but dropped out before long. I don’t recall why. I participated in cross country with my high school off and on but eventually dropped out when the coach gave me an ultimatum to attend every practice or none at all.

The first time I stepped foot in a weight room (that I recall) was my freshman year of college. In the interest of being fit, I tentatively went to the weight room and jogged on a regular basis. I didn’t really have any goals and didn’t really think that I would ever actually develop muscles since I had always been skinny up to that point in my life. And after a few months I stopped going to the weight room. I didn’t go back until about 3 years ago.

Fortunately, the narrative is changing slightly in our society. Perhaps it is largely my own perception which has changed, but I do know that society is finally admitting there are smart people who have bulging muscles. There has been news recently of John Urschel, a football player who has published papers in peer-reviewed journals. There’s been a huge sensation about Pietro Boselli, the “world’s hottest math teacher”. But it certainly seems that smart jocks and strong nerds are becoming more common in the media (even if only slightly).

Regardless of what has happened in the media and what society’s perception has been, I have personally arrived at the conclusion that there is no reason why the two need be mutually exclusive. In fact, from what I have read, it seems to me that physical and mental exercises complement each other—that both are requisite for one’s total health. Physical exercise has been shown to improve one’s brain functions and mental acuity is clearly necessary for top athletic performance.

Over the last three years, I have been attending the gym fairly regularly. I lift weights usually 2-5 times per week. I have jogged and ridden my bike. I’ve gone up and down in my level of fitness. I have found that I enjoy the times I am fit more than the times I am less fit. I have also found that the older I get the harder it is to get into shape. So it is my goal to work toward becoming fit and once there to remain fit.

I have learned that I do not need to be weak in order to be intelligent. I don’t have to choose between jock and nerd. I can be athletic and academic. And that is what I would like to achieve. I believe it will be good for me to excel both physically and intellectually. I don’t plan to join any team sports any time soon. I don’t really have any interest in that. But I do intend to be more active physically.