Thomas Jefferson firmly believed that physical exercise ensured not only bodily health, but mental health as well. Walking was his preferred activity, although as he aged he lamented that "a single mile" is "too much for me," and turned more to horseback riding as his daily exercise.[1]

Documentary References

[1787?]. (Undated memorandum describing Jefferson's "winter" pace). "I step a French mile of 1000 toises = 6408 Eng.f. in 1053 double steps. This yields 3 f. & ½ I. English to the step and 1735 steps to the mile. ¶ I walk a French mile in 17½ minutes. A French mile is = 1.21 or 1¼ Eng. miles. I walk then at the rate of 4 3/20 miles or 4.mi.264 yards an hour."[2]

[1787?]. (Undated memorandum describing Jefferson's "summer" pace). "Walking moderately in the summer I walked a Fr. mile of 1000 T = 6408 f. in 1254. steps and in 26.' That gives

2.55 f. to the step and
2066½ steps to the Eng. mile
1735 the brisk walk of winter
  331. difference."[3]

1785 August 19. (Jefferson to Peter Carr). "Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises, being assured that they will gain strength by exercise as a limb of the body does, and that exercise will make them habitual. ... Give about two of them [hours] every day to exercise; for health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize, and independance to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks. Never think of taking a book with you. The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far. The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man. But I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much the degeneracy of the human body. An Indian goes on foot nearly as far in a day, for a long journey, as an enfeebled white does on his horse, and he will tire the best horses. There is no habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue. I would advise you to take your exercise in the afternoon. Not because it is the best time for exercise for certainly it is not: but because it is the best time to spare from your studies; and habit will soon reconcile it to health, and render it nearly as useful as if you gave to that the more precious hours of the day. A little walk of half an hour in the morning when you first rise is adviseable also. It shakes off sleep, and produces other good effects in the animal œconomy."[4]

1786 August 27. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "If the body be feeble, the mind will not be strong. The sovereign invigorator of the body is exercise, and of all the exercises walking is best. A horse gives but a kind of half exercise, and a carriage is no better than a cradle. No one knows, till he tries, how easily a habit of walking is acquired. A person who never walked three miles will in the course of a month become able to walk 15. or 20. without fatigue. I have known some great walkers and had particular accounts of many more; and I never knew or heard of one who was not healthy and long lived. This species of exercise therefore is much to be advised. Should you be disposed to try it, as your health has been feeble, it will be necessary for you to begin with a little, and to increase it by degrees. For the same reason you must probably at first ascribe to it hours the most precious for study, I mean those about the middle of the day. But when you shall find yourself strong, you may venture to take your walks in the evening after the digestion of the dinner is pretty well over. This is making a composition between health and study. The latter would be too much interrupted were you to take from it the early hours of the day, and habit will soon render the evening’s exercise as salutary as that of the morning. I speak this from my own experience, having, from an attachment to study, very early in life, made this arrangement of my time, having ever observed it, and still observing it, and always with perfect success. Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather should be little regarded. A person not sick will not be injured by getting wet. It is but taking a cold bath, which never gives a cold to any one. Brute animals are the most healthy, and they are exposed to all weather, and of men, those are healthiest who are the most exposed. The recipe of those two descriptions of beings is simple diet, exercise and the open air, be it’s state what it will; and we may venture to say that this recipe will give health and vigor to every other description."[5]

1787 March 28. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson). "Exercise and application produce order in our affairs, health of body, chearfulness of mind, and these make us precious to our friends. ... You are not however to consider yourself as unemployed while taking exercise. That is necessary for your health, and health is the first of all objects. For this reason if you leave your dancing master for the summer, you must increase your other exercise. ... Music, drawing, books, invention and exercise will be so many resources to you against ennui."[6]

1787 August 10. (Jefferson to Peter Carr). "I repeat my advice to take a great deal of exercise, and on foot. Health is the first requisite after morality."[7]

1790 June 11. (Jefferson to John Garland Jefferson). "... leaving all the afternoon for exercise and recreation, which are as necessary as reading; I will rather say more necessary, because health is worth more than learning."[8]

1810 December 15. (Jefferson to David Howell). "... I give more time to exercise of the body than of the mind, believing it wholesome to both."[9]

1811 January 16. (Jefferson to Benjamin Rush). "[F]rom breakfast, or noon at latest, to dinner, I am mostly on horseback, attending to my farms or other concerns, which I find healthful to my body, mind, & affairs."[10]

1811 August 17. (Jefferson to Rush). "[T]he loss of the power of taking exercise would be a sore affliction to me. it has been the delight of my retirement to be in constant bodily activity, looking after my affairs. it was never damped, as the pleasures of reading are, by the question of cui bono? for what object? I hope your health of body continues firm. your works shew that of your mind. the habits of exercise, which your calling has given to both, will tend long to preserve them. the sedentary character of my public occupations sapped a constitution naturally sound and vigorous, and draws it to an earlier close."[11]

1812 January 21. (Jefferson to John Adams). "You and I have been wonderfully spared, and myself with remarkable health, and a considerable activity of body and mind. I am on horseback three or four hours of every day; visit three or four times a year a possession I have ninety miles distant, performing the winter journey on horseback. I walk little, however, a single mile being too much for me."[12]

1818 March 14. (Jefferson to Nathaniel Burwell). "The ornaments too, and the amusements of life are entitled to their portion of attention. these, for a female, are dancing, drawing & musick. the first is a healthy exercise, elegant, and very attractive for young people."[13]

1819 March 21. (Jefferson to Dr. Vine Utley). "... except on a late occasion of indisposition, I enjoy good health; too feeble indeed to walk much, but riding without fatigue 6. or 8 miles a day, and sometimes 30. or 40."[14]

1819 October 31. (Jefferson to William Short). "[Y]our love of repose will lead, in it's progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to every thing around you, and finally to a debility of body and hebetude of mind, the farthest of all things from the happiness which the well regulated indulgences of Epicurus ensure"[15]

1820 August 15. (Jefferson to Adams). "I can walk but little; but I ride 6. or 8. miles a day without fatigue .... our University, 4. miles distant, gives me frequent exercise."[16]

- Originally compiled by KKO, 11/6/90


  1. ^ Jefferson to John Adams, January 21, 1812, in PTJ:RS, 4:429. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  2. ^ See Jefferson to James Madison, June 20, 1787, in PTJ, 11:484n. Transcription and editorial note available at Founders Online.
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ PTJ, 8:406-08. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  5. ^ PTJ, 10:308. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  6. ^ PTJ, 11:250-51. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  7. ^ PTJ, 12:18. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  8. ^ PTJ, 16:481. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  9. ^ PTJ:RS, 3:257. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  10. ^ PTJ:RS, 3:304. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  11. ^ PTJ:RS, 4:88. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  12. ^ PTJ:RS, 4:429. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  13. ^ PTJ:RS, 12:533. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  14. ^ PTJ:RS, 14:157. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  15. ^ PTJ:RS, 15:164. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  16. ^ L&B, 15:269. Transcription available at Founders Online.