Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mandela: a great statesman who did fingertip push-ups

Nelson Mandela's ability to champion the message of unity and forgiveness – despite mistreatment he and his people suffered under Apartheid and any negative inner feelings he may have held – is unparalleled.

Mandela, who just passed away at age 95, was a freedom fighter, statesman, writer, survivor, and hero to South Africa. He was also a fitness buff, who believed that staying physically, as well as mentally, strong was essential to being able to influence and to serve others.

Not a guy that gives up: Mandela's physical
and mental strength kept him active all his life

Before politics, he'd been a boxer, and he stuck with his training regime through years of struggle and isolation. In his memoir, Long Road to Freedom, he writes:

"Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, color, and wealth are irrelevant . . . I never did any real fighting after I entered politics. My main interest was in training; I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress. After a strenuous workout, I felt both mentally and physically lighter. It was a way of losing myself in something that was not the struggle. After an evening's workout I would wake up the next morning feeling strong and refreshed, ready to take up the fight again".

young Nelson Mandela ready to
take up the fight
Before that, he was a runner, appreciating its psychological benefits as much as its physical ones. In his memoir, he recalls:

I enjoyed the discipline and solitariness of long-distance running, which allowed me to escape from the hurly-burly of school life.

Mandela's long-time friend and memoir co-author, Richard Stengel, explains how well Mandela understood the importance of maintaining a smile, good posture, appropriate dress, and a strong body in addressing both the public and his oppressors. With tremendous self-discipline, he maintained both his fitness and appearance throughout his life, which he credited with enabling him to better meet life's challenges (and his were serious!).

Writes Stengel: "Long before jogging became a trend, he was a stickler for fitness. He used to run in the early mornings in Johannesburg in the Fifties. Some of this was vanity: he was very proud of his slimness. He was careful about what he ate and he used to cluck a bit at men of his generation who had bellies."

Mandela's prison cell for nearly 20 years
Don't complain about having
no room for your workout.
"‘It is very hard, life in the country, and poverty ages a person,’ [Mandela] said. ‘It is ironic that the programme in prison, with its minimal diet and physical activity, promotes long life and youthfulness.’"

"Mandela often told me about his morning exercise routine in prison, which included running in place for 45 minutes followed by 200 sit-ups and 100 fingertip push-ups. One day, he popped down on the floor and did two quick fingertip push-ups for me, then dusted his hands off with a satisfied smile."

Exercise kept Mandela going through years of struggle to regain the civil rights of South Africa's non-white populace and 27 potentially hopeless and demoralizing years in prison:

I have always believed exercise is a key not only to physical health but to peace of mind. Many times in the old days I unleashed my anger and frustration on a punchbag rather than taking it out on a comrade or even a policeman. Exercise dissipates tension, and tension is the enemy of serenity. I found that I worked better and thought more clearly when I was in good physical condition, and so training became one of the inflexible disciplines of my life. In prison, having an outlet for my frustrations was absolutely essential.

only the beginning: Mandela leaves prison

OK, whatever I may get frustrated with in my life seems particularly trivial and manageable in comparison.

His dedication to fitness and staying strong in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds allowed Mandela to serve others long after his 70th birthday. Let him be an inspiration to all of us.

Read more:

Stengel's article in U.K.'s Daily Mail

Long Walk to Freedom