ABC Radio National ‘Life Matters’: The Exercise Room

What is a runner’s high? Can you explain what’s happening physiologically and psychologically?

Researchers have come to believe that getting high during moderately stressful exercise is hard-wired into our DNA. Essentially, the body produces endorphins in relation to pain and endocannabinoids in relation to stress.

In 2008 that German researchers used brain scans on runners and were able to identify exactly where they originated. The scientists found that during two-hour-long runs, subjects’ pre-frontal and limbic regions (which light up in response to emotions like love) spewed out endorphins. The greater the endorphin surge in these brain areas, the more euphoric the feeling.

Endorphins get all the attention, but your body also pumps out endocannabinoids, which are a naturally synthesized version of THC, the chemical responsible for the buzz that marijuana produces.

The most examined endocannabinoid produced in the body, anandamide, is believed to create a feeling of calmness. Endocannabinoid production is believed to be greater in response to stress as opposed to pain (the stronger endorphin activator).

The same mechanism that triggers endorphins can also trigger endocannabinoids: a ‘challenging’ rather than brutal workout. Running at between 70 and 85 per cent of your age-adjusted maximum heart rate is optimal in spiking the primary stress hormone cortisol, and producing endocannabinoids.

Presumably it doesn’t just happen with runners? Of course we understand the physical benefits, but what is it about physical exertion that can result in a sense of wellbeing? 

I have been able to tap into it through all kinds of exertion. As you know, fighting is my favourite. It combines everything, it tests everything, and it’s been used as a metaphorical acid-test of character in Asian cultures since time immemorial.

Anything which requires physical exertion combined with a degree of psychological toughness is going to give you the high. I personally think it’s a bit like the experience priests explain as being your relationship with God. It’s not for anyone else to spell out, or describe, or quantify. It’s between you and God. But you have to take it seriously, and you do that by stepping into the crucible.

Runners high is just one of many ways people find pleasure in exercise. What about its calming effects? People speak about getting into an almost meditative state during exercise…do you experience anything like that? 

Do I ever. One of the many positive effects of meditation is the dissipation of mental chatter. My favourite way of achieving a meditative state is lighting a candle and staring into the flame, concentrating on the undulations of the flame itself.

The idea is to stare into it and when you have a thought, you don’t try to suppress it; you look at it, acknowledge it for what it is and allow it to drift away when it wants to.

Exercise is a great way of using your body and its sensory experience as a circuit breaker in that process. I find things like running to be immensely effective because the discomfort performs that function.

The other thing about running is that it’s governed by a rhythm and anything with a rhythm will also induce a thoughtless state. I heard a woman once describe kettlebell training as a very effective way because the thing had a pendulous rhythm invested into it via your technique.

The more refined your technique, the cleaner and more consistent the rhythm. The flame, if you like, needs to be fed by the oxygen of your exertion and technique. You effectively become the source of the flame itself.

And in order to get there does that mean we need to stop thinking? Focus on the exercise we are doing rather than have a million thoughts rushing through our heads?

One of the most confusing notions Oriental culture presents us with, especially as Westerners, is the notion that we shouldn’t try. The thing I like with exercise, the thing that is most attractive about fighting, is that it stops you trying. The pain is what pushes you head-first into the moment.

Eugen Herrigel wrote a book called Zen in the Art of Archery. He was a German philosopher who travelled to Japan to learn about Zen firsthand. He chose archery as the means for coming to practice it, and it was explained to him by his instructor that when an arrow is fired effectively, it becomes a fusion of project and object.

The state of duality is a product of mental chatter and if you intellectualise, you’ll continue falling into the gulf. It is not something that can – or should – be explained. It has to be felt.

When you run, you become the arrow and the archer. If you want that experience of the fusion of project and object, discomfort is the sensation of closing the distance between the two.

Studies often demonstrate the relationship between exercise and mental health. What is it do you think about exercise that stabilises us?

During one of my previous appearances, I was discussing the effects of calorie restriction on my physicality, and one of the most dramatic effects was the effect on my mental health. I discovered that by severely restricting what I ate, I lowered my testosterone to the point where I was a teary lump of misery.

A friend of mine who had begun using oestrogen as cancer therapy reported a similar species of misery. We came to agree on the belief that your hormones are, in fact, the lens or lenses through which you experience the world.

Exercise, putting it simply, is good for the machine. It keeps you in tune and maintains optimal function. When you add natural drugs, it’s a situation without a downside.

Most people run for a range of reasons – to get fit, lose weight – but are we maybe thinking about exercise in the wrong way? Should we see it as an end in itself instead of focusing so relentlessly on the results we want it to deliver?

I’d say absolutely. And to be frank, anyone that’s thinking of exercise as necessary for health doesn’t do it on a regular basis. No one sticks at it simply because they need to. Anyone who is ‘fit’ understands the maxim, ‘Life is running. Everything else is just waiting.’

Running isn’t a bad form of exercise to start the discussion with, because it’s inherently uncomfortable.

I was attracted to running because I wasn’t good at it and of all the miseries heaped on me during high school P.E., running was at the top of the list. All those private school sports, especially the contact ones, were about running.

Once I started fighting, I was told I had to run. I’m big and heavy, and not suited to it, but I had to do it, so I got going. I received a piece of advice from a runner who told me that, ‘There are two aspects to running, and that’s being fit in your lungs and fit in your legs.’ Most of the ‘bad’ pain relates to being fit in your legs, which is to say, being strong enough to support your weight over the distance.

Once your legs become strong enough that you don’t get home feeling like you’ve fallen down a set of stairs, you’ll be able to really stretch your lungs and that’s when you start to enjoy it.

For me, being tortured with exercise at high school is a huge part of what got me going. I was picked on by the bigger, stronger kids and when I looked in the mirror, I knew why: I could see what they saw. My appearance, my stature and my physicality were the emblems of what was wrong with me.

When I started exercising, I started to run like the kid in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner: it was emotional catharsis. It gave me a way to vent all that misery and look, you know, it’s breakfast radio and the preferred mode of feeling is having a laugh, but the average RN listener, I reckon they’ve been there. They know what it is to be crying in a shower stall in the middle of the night because they’re being inculcated with the fact that the world hates them and their physique is emblematic of why.

I started running to vent those feelings, but I stuck at it because it opened the door to super-consciousness. I particularly liked cross-country running because the world is so beautiful and it’s actually more stressful and you get a better result. But as you’re passing through that beauty, it becomes apparent that you are also a part of it. It’s a form of true participation in that miracle of creation that you’re pouring yourself through.

I came to realise that enjoyment of being fit, and the activity of exercise, was something that high school had actually taken from me and if I stayed that way, the biggest fool in the whole saga was me. Because I stuck at it, I got stronger and faster.

And next thing you know, I had metamorphosed into the beast you see before you.

I love running. I recently underwent pretty painful surgery for an injury I could have lived with but I did it expressly so I will be able to eventually run again. Your relationship to these things is as personal as your relationship with God, but it won’t exist and you can’t experience it until you start.

What advice would you give people who find exercise a chore – something they feel they have to do rather than want to do? How can we start to think about pleasure and exercise? 

Find something you like. I don’t exercise because it’s good for me; I exercise because it’s fun. If you do not like something, do not do it. And my suggestion is to avoid trainers of the drill instructor variety. A good instructor is someone who’s going to give you tools when you ask for them, not scream at you when you’re questing around in the dark.

Have a think about the kind of activity that suits your character. If you’re a social person, perhaps a team sport is more your speed. If you have a background in dancing, yoga might appeal to you or vice versa. If you’re injured, swimming is a wonderful thing to try out.

I think everyone should try a bit of weight training. It’s something that will contribute to your fitness in a way that nothing else will. It develops bone density and core strength, which are essential as we age, as well as releasing lots of feel-good hormones. Incidentally, many studies have established a certain link between weight training and mental health.

If I was asked for the three or four things I had learned in the last couple of decades of training, I’d say, warm up slow. You need to up your body temperature and your circulation and get the fluid moving through your joints before you subject yourself to strain. That slow rise in temperature, and a lift in intensity which occurs slightly afterward, will allow you push your limits in a pleasurable way.


Jarrod Boyle

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