What Nelson Mandela Can Teach Us About Fitness

by Darrin on March 30, 2012

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
-Nelson Mandela

In 1953, he co-founded the only all-black law firm in South Africa.

With the African National Congress (ANC), he organized numerous attempts to protest the unjust system of apartheid, which ultimately led to him spending 27 years in prison.

After the dissolution of government-sponsored segregation, he won the first-ever multi-racial presidential election in the country.

During my recent trip to South Africa, I read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. At a whopping 656 pages, it took me almost the entire two weeks to read!

Yet every chapter was utterly compelling, painting a portrait of a man who was unwavering in following a passion that most thought impossible to achieve.

I also visited Robben Island, the isolated landmass just off of the Cape Town coast where Mandela spent the majority of his imprisonment.

Here, we were able to see the courtyard where Mandela hid the manuscript to the autobiography he was writing, as well as the tiny cell he called home for more than a decade.

To say that this man has accomplished a lot with his life would be a gross understatement. He has achieved a level of self-actualization that very few of us do.

And it is for this reason that I think he is worthy of further analysis at LMVM.

Nelson Mandela? On a Men’s Fitness Blog?

While the fitness levels of people such as Chris Evans, Tim Tebow, and Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his 70’s heyday) are no doubt impressive, I tend to be much more interested in the health habits of people whose impact lies outside of the realm of acting, bodybuilding, and athletics.

What’s the point of eating better, moving smarter, and relaxing harder if our calling in life lies outside these routes?

Should we just not bother? Are these things a waste of time that would be better spent elsewhere?


Not only does being in shape help you to meet the physical challenges in life, but it prepares you for the more intellectual ones, as well.

Exercise, Even If You’re the Only One Doing It

On reading his autobiography, I was struck by just how much attention he has paid to his fitness.

Here are a few quotes I pulled out:

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

“On Monday through Thursday, I would do stationary running in my cell in the morning for up to forty-five minutes. I would also perform one hundred fingertip push-ups, two hundred sit-ups, fifty deep knee-bends, and various other calisthenics.”

“Exercise was unusual for African men of my age and generation… I know that some of my younger comrades looked at me and said to themselves, ‘if that old man can do it, why can’t I?’ They too began to exercise.”

“I attended the gym for one and a half hours each evening from Monday through Thursday… We did an hour of exercise, some combination of roadwork, skipping rope, calisthenics, or shadow boxing, followed by fifteen minutes of body work, some weight lifting, and then sparring.”

Mandela was active his entire life, to the point that most people he knew thought over-the-top.

While I don’t think you need to spend the amount of time that he did in the gym (around two hours per week should be sufficient for most people), it’s hard to argue with the results.

As of this writing, Nelson Mandela is 93 years old, an age that few people are fortunate enough to reach.

Y’think working out had anything to do with it?

It’s Never Too Late to Kick Some Ass

In 1990, Mandela was finally released from prison.

He was 72 years old at the time.

Since then, he has won the Nobel Peace Prize, served as president of South Africa, and oversaw the remarkably peaceful reconciliation that occurred after the abolishment of apartheid.

Not to talk down the accomplishments he made before he was imprisoned, but he’s been absolutely kicking ass since he got out.

You might think it’s too late to get in shape.

You might believe that, since you haven’t started long ago, then it’s a lost cause.


Everyone can soon reap the benefits when they start to eat better, move smarter, and relax harder.

Don’t let this obstacle get in your way. In your life, the best may still be around the corner. And you’ll be able to make the most of it if you are in good health.

Don’t Take ANYTHING Personally

Rarely in history does a transfer of power happen without a brutal civil war.

That didn’t happen with the end of apartheid.

One of Mandela’s greatest accomplishments was uniting the country at a time when it should have been divided. Rather than harboring a grudge after hundreds of years of injustice, he made it a priority for all South Africans to know that they were equal members of the society, regardless of their color or race.

Perhaps the most iconic moment of Mandela’s presidency comes from the 1995 World Cup of Rugby. Although South Africa was hosting the games, their team–The Springboks–were underdogs at best.

Even worse, rugby was considered the white man’s game, and this only helped to further create a racial divide in most people’s minds.

But Mandela made the audacious goal of a Springbok championship a personal one. He got to know all the team members–especially captain Francois Pienaar–and helped to give them the motivation they needed to pull off a stunning upset and win the World Cup.

If you’ve ever failed at learning how to cook, lift weights, or achieve your goal weight, it’s easy to get angry.

Maybe you just have a thrifty gene? Or you’re all thumbs in the kitchen? Or you’ll never be able to bench press as much as your friends?

So what?

Learn to forget about the past and start each day with a blank slate.

Every time you try to master the art of the pot roast is a new chance to succeed. Every time you try to learn to deadlift a new beginning.

Don’t let your gut get in the way of what your heart wants.

Make Freedom a Personal Mission

Mandela spent his entire life fighting for freedom.

Whether it was representing non-whites that no one else would in court, or organizing protests from within the confines of solitary confinement, he never stopped at “good enough.”

He fought, and fought, and fought some more. He never gave up on his quest for freedom.

What does freedom mean to you?

Perhaps it’s freedom from debt. Or freedom from your boss telling you what to do. Freedom to spend quality time with friends and family. To learn new things and make a difference in the world.

Or maybe it’s freedom from injury and illness. It’s living a long life filled with energy to do whatever you want to do.

No matter what, it’s living life on your own terms. It’s not settling. It’s unapologetically going for what you want.

And that’s one thing that we can all learn from Nelson Mandela.


{ 1 comment }

Mary C. Weaver, CSCS March 30, 2012 at 6:30 am

Darrin, this is excellent. I had no idea Mandela was so committed to fitness, and no doubt his discipline helped him survive those years in prison.

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