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Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.

Bodily Exercise

My dear brother,
You are not to suppose, from my objections to certain amusements and games, that there are no suitable recreations. Indeed, my difficulty in writing to you this morning, is, that there are so many, I scarcely know where to begin, or which to choose. There are amusements which are good for the body, or the mind—or for both. Let us consider a few of these.

Healthful exercise is part of the duty of every day. The divine Maker and Master of these bodies requires that we should take good care of them. Young people engaged in study are liable to illnesses which arise from lack of exercise. No day should pass, therefore, without sufficient employment of the limbs and muscles. And those exercises are best which give strength to the body, and at the same time give recreation to the mind. If you amuse yourself without muscular action, you will be puny and weak of limb. And if you take ever so much exercise without delight, you will become dull and melancholy. Try to accomplish both ends at once.

For example, riding on horseback is a noble exercise for boys. It is one of the best means of preserving health. To manage a spirited horse is quite an attainment for a young man; tending to produce high cheerfulness and courage. In many ways which I cannot stop to name, it may be very useful in your future life. And you will never be an independent rider, unless you become such in your boyhood.

Walking may be used when one cannot ride. But walking takes more time and often fatigues before it has sufficiently excited the circulation, and revived the spirits. Neither can you survey so great a variety of scenes on foot as on horseback. Let me own, however, that the great Dr. Franklin considered walking the very best sort of exercise. It should be pursued for at least two hours every day, by those who study much. Pedestrian excursions are of great benefit. In this way hundreds of the students at the German universities spend their vacations, sometimes traveling over all Switzerland.

Whether you walk or ride, however, you should have a companion; otherwise your thoughts will be apt still to busy themselves with the books you have left. Try to have some object in view, in your walk or ride. Visit a friend—seek out some natural curiosity—make yourself familiar with every hill and valley, every nook and corner, of the whole township and county. In process of time, extend your researches to your own State, and then to other States. Or make collections in mineralogy and botany, that you may be gaining science as well as health. Thus you will become a traveler, and judicious travel is the most profitable, as it is certainly the most agreeable of all recreations.

Swimming, rowing, and skating are manly sports, and conducive to health when practiced with discretion. I say nothing about trap-ball, cricket, and the like games of sports, because the only danger is that you already do too much at them. They are all good, when used at proper times, in proper places, and with proper care. But no one of them conduces to any immediate benefit, beyond bodily exercise and amusement.

Not so with manual labor. This, after all, seems to be the true recreation, especially for wintry days, when we have to keep in the house. The Jews used to hold, that every lad, however rich, should he bred to a trade. A little skill in carpentry is a grand accomplishment. How often have I regretted that I had not gained it. I might now be independent of the carpenter, when I need a new shelf, or when the leg of my table needs to be mended. A turning lathe is used by some young friends of mine, with great advantage. Every large school ought to have a good supply of tools, and someone to give lessons to the boys. But even without other tools, you may chop, saw, and split wood, or break up coal, or roll the gravel walks, or ply the wheelbarrow. And when these things are done by boys in concert, nothing can be more entertaining.

Gardening is so charming a recreation, so innocent, healthful, and profitable, that I might spend a whole letter in writing about it. Take my word for it, if you live to be a man, you will have a peculiar satisfaction in looking at trees or shrubbery which you had put in the earth many years before. And in our climate, where trees for shade are so valuable, you cannot discharge your duty to society, if you do not occasionally plant a maple, or oak, or an elm which may refresh your fellow men when you shall have departed. I am the more earnest about this, because I have to walk daily through a street, upon which the noontide sun pours his beams, much to my discomfort. If I had set out trees twenty years ago, as I might have done, how different would my walks be! Look at the shaded promenade before the State House in Philadelphia, or Temple Street in New Haven, or Bond Street in New York, or the Mall in Boston, and you will feel the force of my advice. The cultivation of valuable fruit trees and plants may be made a source of profit as well as of pleasure.

But I have filled my sheet of paper, and yet am not half done with the subject. Adieu, my dear boy. But remember, in recreation, no less than in labor—to keep a conscience void of offence towards God and towards man.

Your affectionate brother,

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