Dr. George Sheehan on the Benefits of Physical Play

The first time I remember hearing the word “philosopher” and thinking that it was something I wanted to do was in reference to a man named George Sheehan. If you’re not a runner over the age of 40, you’ve probably never heard of him. But to runners from the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, he was a ubiquitous avuncular figure who expressed his opinions on the most profound parts of life, always through the lens of a long-distance runner.

From the late ’60s to his death in 1993, he wrote a regular column for Runner’s World. He was an MD before he was known as a philosopher, and so his columns started off as medical advice for runners. But as his following grew and he got older, his writing shifted from a focus on the body to the mind and the deeper questions of life.

One topic that recurs throughout his writing that is almost entirely absent from the writing of other philosophers is the idea of physical play. For Sheehan, physical play was the starting point for a healthy body and mind. He argued frequently and vigorously against the stereotype that physical play is only for children:

As we age we stop following our physical bliss. The body is pampered rather than challenged. It is told to be quiet, and becomes no more than a receptacle for the mind and the spirit. Life becomes a matter of creature comforts. The challenge becomes its ability to withstand he effects of our bad habits. We are no longer athletes. We have become spectators.

This will never do. Among Emerson’s instructions for the good life was another terse statement: “Be first a good animal.” Life is not a spectator sport. Only to the good animal come the peak experiences, the joys, the epiphanies. All of us are Olympians. And each day brings with it success or failure, as it were, only to ourselves. How this plays out is determined much more by our body than we think. “The body is the source of our energy,” said Plato. We are our bodies, our bodies are us, and we must live this life physically and at the top of our powers.

Going the Distance, George Sheehan

Sheehan sought out philosophers and poets who emphasized the benefits of play and time spent in nature and quoted from them liberally. He quoted Thoreau, Dickinson, William James, Arisotle, and Ortega y Gassett. Here’s another gem where he sources English philosopher Bertrand Russell on the benefits of play and exercise:

Russell thought it was impossible to be happy without physical play—of both mind and body. But such activity, he suggested, should be agreeable, directed to a desired end, and not contrary to our impulses.

“A dog will pursue rabbits to the point of complete exhaustion and be happy all the time, but if you put a dog on a treadmill he would not be happy because he is not engaged in a natural activity.”

I am an observer of happy dogs. Daily I see numbers of them walking with their owners on the boardwalk and grass in front of our beach house. They are a curious lot, constantly in motion and exploring the world around them. At times they are engaged in play, chasing through sticks or pursuing Frisbees. One characteristic is immediately evident. They are very serious when having fun. They may wag their tails but they are totally concentrated on what is about to happen.

Play is of equal importance to us. The things we do with our bodies should be done merely because they are fun—not because they serve some serious purpose. If we are not doing something that is enjoyable on its own account we should look for something that is. We may not find something as natural to us as hunting is to a dog, but we can come quite close.

George Sheehan lived and wrote with energy and vigor until the last days of his struggle with cancer. For a detailed account of his last months, Going the Distance is a beautiful and lasting portrayal of coming to grips with death and remembering a life well lived.