Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Nelson Mandela & Resilience for 4th of July!

After the post on Alain Mimoun I got a nice note from publishing icon and fitness activist George Hirsch:


“Thanks for this. As a teenager, I attended the 1952 Helsinki Games and became a lifelong admirer of Mimoun, a true champion in every way.”


That led to a longer exchange about George’s role as a leader of the NY Marathon in bringing Mimoun’s great competitive partner Emil Zatopek to New York in 1979.  The picture below is of Bill Rogers, George and Zatopek out for a run in Central Park.




As e-mail conversations sometimes do, things drifted to Zatopek’s support for greater political freedom as part of the Prague Spring in 1968.  With the suppression of the Prague Spring, Zatopek lost his official status and was apparently given a series of menial jobs.  At some level he was probably protected from even more harsh treatment by his international status and George Hirsch indicated that it did not take a major diplomatic effort to get him to New York in 1979.  In 1990 he was politically “rehabilitated” as communism crumbled in the former Czechoslovakia.   So, like Mimoun, Zatopek was a man of great personal resilience.


How Does This Relate to Nelson Mandela?

All of this discussion about resilience got me thinking about Nelson Mandela whose health and perhaps life is slipping away at age 94.  The details of Mandela’s life are well known, but perhaps less well known is that he was devoted to a program of calisthenics and running in place during his nearly three decades as a political prisoner.   In his 70s he then had the physical stamina to emerge from prison, lead his country and focus on reconciliation vs. revenge.  He also continued an exercise program well into his 80s.  I can’t help but think that his physical endurance contributed to his mental endurance and the resilience it took to just keep pushing forward against long odds.  From a scientific perspective surely the exercise helped him deal with the stresses of resistance and leadership and kept him cognitively sharp for a long time.


The 4th of July is a time when we should all spend a few minutes reflecting about the ongoing struggle for human freedom.  Thinking about how Nelson Mandela pressed on over so many years is a good place to start, and so is following his example and getting some exercise before the festivities and fireworks start.  At some level resilience is a skill that can be learned and physical activity can surely contribute to it.


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