When I was in army basic training from October through December of 1969, there were some things that, when I thought about them later, really highlight the link between exercise and feeling good.
The first thing, and I noticed this at the time, is I remember clearly the difference in how I felt when they rolled us out for our morning run and how I felt when we went into the mess hall for breakfast afterward.
When I was first shouted awake, I felt like a lost soul with no hope of redemption in this world. A day of unknown horrors with unimaginable consequences for violations of rules to be learned on the job – and the first thing I have to do is fall out and run for who knows how far with people screaming at me.
When I went in for breakfast afterward, I could only think about how good it was going to taste and one other thing – how good I felt. I remember specifically thinking about the difference. When I woke up, in my mind, literally, life itself was without value and if I had an ‘off’ switch, I would have pushed it. After the run, I felt too good to worry about being in basic, or the army, or any of my problems. I was alive in my own skin and ready for breakfast, even if it was army food. And I didn’t drink coffee so it couldn’t have been caffeine.
The other thing: We had physical training (PT) every day, usually more than once. I dreaded nothing more. I hadn’t done any meaningful exercise in at least two years, and even then I’d question the use of the word “meaningful”. They never told us where we were going next, so when I sensed we were marching towards the PT area, I was panicked.
One day during the first couple of weeks, just after we finished a PT session. I had a sense of well-being that I can only compare to the one or two times I had been drugged during a stay in the hospital after a bike-car encounter when I was 13. I had exactly the same sense of “Why do I feel so good?” It was particularly puzzling in basic, because I usually operated in fear mode 24/5.5 we were usually off on Saturday afternoon and Sunday – and just like in the real world, denial that it will ever end at the start of a time-off period saved us all from despair.
As to why I felt so good, I came to the conclusion, and I swear this is true, that I had finally been in basic long enough to “man-up” (an expression that would not be discovered for many years) and I was now a man among men, sharing in the doing of manly things. This leveraged me from euphoric to exuberant for the rest of the day.
So when I went to sleep that night, it was the first time I didn’t have a visceral fear of waking up the next morning. As it turned out it was also the last time, because the next morning was the usual horror. At the time I had no idea how to explain it. Only years later did I come to the conclusion that it had to be endorphins, which one way or another usually is the culprit behind any non-drug induced mood elevation. So my ‘unnatural’ exuberance had a morning after – but not from the endorphins from exercise, they would have tapered off gradually, but the endorphins generated by my elevated expectations of what that implied. I woke up, found myself still in the army and afraid, and despaired.
But my point is, in both the case of the morning run and the post PT exuberance, I was in an altered state. I transcended from the mundane, self-absorbed, fixated on my problems, pathetic wretch to the exuberant, actualized-for-the-time-being, human animal ready to accomplish something (or eat a really good breakfast) with this sense of well-being.
Does it last forever? Of course not. In basic, I only experienced it from the time we got back from the run until we had to go clean the barracks before formation. Maybe 15 minutes. But it was worth it. Just being able to remember how it felt is worth it.
And anyway, a little of something good is always better than nothing. That’s the entire principle I’m trying to get across. Commit to just starting everyday, preferably when you’re burnt-out and feel like it the least, and nothing more. Focus on just that and do it even on the days you think it’s pointless. What could stop you? The bar is at level zero – actually, lethargy will try to stop you by telling you you’re too tired. Are you? Probably not, but it’s easy to find out. Put yourself out just enough to start and see how you feel about it even after two minutes – maybe still not into it, but maybe willing to put in two more minutes, maybe to the end of the next song, maybe more – you can quit anytime. It doesn’t have to be jump rope – I rode a stationary bike every day after work and more for 25 years.
If you actually fulfill that commitment and actually make an effort to push yourself, just a little, you’ll find that how you feel will start to make sure you get in a workout rather than make excuses to avoid it. But if you start skipping days just because you feel like it then it probably won’t work because the important thing is to maintain the chain of accomplishment that reinforces the habit itself and provides the positive feedback to deepen your appreciation of how much better it is to feel good than to feel bad or even mediocre. You become enlightened. Just enough to over-ride lethargy when it tries to deny you, but that’s all it takes.
After 30 years, that’s where I still am. Even now lethargy and feeling generally beat-up from the day make it impossible to really “believe” that I will enjoy jumping and it will make me feel good, and I find myself making mental excuses to skip on skipping as I drive home. Fortunately I rely on what I know, in spite of what my lethargy is making me believe, and when I actually get home, what I know most is I don’t want to keep feeling burnt-out, so I go ahead and within minutes, maybe seconds, I’m off into the music.
As for transcendence, aside from just generally having fun I go through two states I can describe while I’m jumping. The first one, euphoria, usually kicks in during the first few minutes, or even seconds as the music takes over. There’s no sense of physical effort whatsoever and I feel surprised when I start running out of wind and have to back off temporarily. That tapers off to just overall exuberance. Then towards the end I get the sense that I can jump forever. I think the music/jumping combination causes the euphoria in the beginning and exertion-induced endorphins cause the “runner’s high” as they kick into high gear near the end of stamina.
Doesn’t matter what causes what. It’s all about feeling good, which brings me to the state I’m in after I finish up, take a shower and sit down in front of the computer to work on something. That state is happy.