The Paradox of Sedentary Exhaustion

“Sedentary Exhaustion” is a term I made up to describe the way I feel at the end of a typical work day behind a desk, which I think is pretty much the same for most people over the age of 30. Depending on how your day has been the severity can range from feeling generally burnt-out to angst, ennui, and anxiety all balled up in one package of deep despair. And the more years you’ve been working, the more the bad days push you towards the latter.

Thankfully, it’s a temporary condition stemming from the poisons that build up in your bloodstream because they have no outlet; no meaningful increase in respiration or muscle output in response to the ongoing stresses of the day. Ever wonder why 2:30 pm is so much worse than 8:30 am when you haven’t done anything that required the least amount of physical effort all day? Stress with no outlet. The angst dissipates as your attention is distracted and you are less stressed over the course of the evening; and then a night of sleep prepares you for the next cycle.

But why is that a paradox? Because when sedentary exhaustion has you convinced that the last thing you want to do is exercise is exactly when exercise will make the most dramatic difference in how you feel. There are three things close to magic in life: music, cats, and the difference in how you feel before and after exercise at the end of an “exhausting” day behind a desk. I know this from experience.

For a working person there are three typical times of day to work out: before work, at lunch time, or after work. Let’s get lunch time out of the way first for the simple reason that when I work out at lunch the last thing I want to do is go back to work, unless I’m working from home. A workout before the work day is good because you feel great when you sit at your desk aftwards, but unless you’re willing to do a second workout at the end of it then you’ve used up your opportunity to improve your evening.

And the thing is, “sedentary exhaustion” is an abnormal human condition. There was nothing sedentary about surviving in the pre-agricultural, natural world, so no reason to mentally associate exercise with pulling oneself out of the quagmire of angst / pseudo-physical exhaustion induced by low blood oxygen and the effects of stress. In the natural world, people didn’t get more oxygen in their blood by exercising – they naturally got more oxygen in their blood just in the course of staying alive. So the natural response when you think you’re tired is to rest, not exercise.

So what’s to be done? Well, if you’ve read my other posts you probably already know, so the above is just another way of trying to convince you to give it a shot. If not, I’ll describe it again and maybe I can say it in a better way than I’ve said it before.

Essentially what I’m saying is that through simple behavior modification you can establish a habit of exercising after work every day because you will be motivated by how much better you feel after the workout than when you got home. And I can’t emphasize enough how much difference it makes – how wonderful it is to break the chains in your head. The days when you feel so gloomy after work that you almost want to wallow in it more than you want to feel good – those are the days when it really is magical how you feel afterwards – the days when you most don’t want to work out are the days when you’ll feel the best afterwards. I’ve experienced that hundreds of times in the thousands of exercise bike rides and JumpRock sessions I’ve done over the last 30+ years.

All you have to do is commit to a workout every day with no commitment to length or intensity. The best time is your energy low point, typically after work.

That’s it. The catch is you actually have to do it. I discovered this because I had a need to study every evening but I was just too “tired’ to get into it. I knew that exercise would perk me up so I bought an exercise bike. But when I commited to 20 or 30 minutes I just couldn’t make myself do it most days – sedentary exhaustion defeated me. That’s where behavior modification comes in. Mechanically establish a daily habit by literally just going through the motions. But then there’s a synergy effect – getting started is absolutely the hardest part of a workout, so that’s why the minimum requirement for my method is pretty much that you just go through the motions. And speaking of motion, once you get into motion, any motion, like getting on the bike and starting to pedal, it becomes easier. And knowing you can quit at any time takes away the dread, so you tend to keep it up for longer than you intended, such as “just to the end of the next song”, then the next one, and so on. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to work out when you know you can bail at any time.

But beware!!! There will still be days when you’ll think it’s a waste of time, partly from sedentary exhaustion, partly from the human tendency to defeat ourselves when trying to accompish something new. On those days you just have to shame yourself into it. Remind yourself that if it really is a waste of time then you can quit as soon as you like – the important thing is to keep the chain going, even if you do quit after 30 seconds. That’s very different from trying to persuade yourself to get started when you’re looking at a commitment of 20 or 30 minutes. And I promise you, those are the days when you’ll get the most benefit, because in my experience those are the days when you do get started you never do just 30 seconds, to the contrary, those are the days when you get the best workouts and feel the most dramatic difference. The more sedentary exhaustion the more dramatic it is when the chains come off. The funny thing is you’ll feel exactly the same way the next day. You can’t fight blood chemistry by trying to make yourself feel good about starting a workout, you have to act on what you know.

If you hang in there and keep it up the difference in how you feel will start to kick in and you won’t have to fight yourself to get started. You might not look forward to the workout, but you look forward to the after effects so much that you don’t really mind it so much. And even then, there were times when I’d be kind of bored with it, but I’d realize that if I quit I wouldn’t feel any better than when I started, but if I kept it up, even for a little while, I’d feel better. For one thing, after awhile each bike ride tends to blur into the one before, so once you get past a certain point you kind of zone and the ride is over before you know it.

Then at age 55 I discovered Jump Rope. I couldn’t jump at all, but I stuck with it because it was a change from the bike and the sessions were really, really short. It’s amazing how tiring it is to miss over and over. Finally I could actually jump and I discovered that jumping to music was really fun. So I invented JumpRock and now I’m in the best shape of my life at age 64.

All because I wanted to feel better after work every day over 30 years ago. And the funny thing was I thought I would quit the daily rides after work when I finished computer school because I wouldn’t need the energy any more. What I couldn’t realize, because you have to experience it over and over again for it to sink in, was how I would come to crave how good I felt mentally after each ride.

So you can take it as far as you like, but I don’t think I’m very different from most people; so most people should probably get the same results I did, which ultimately is to make the transition from late middle age, when I started jumping to old age at 64 and actually be improving in fitness rather than declining. Unless of course you start at an earlier age, which will give you an even higher plane of fitness to descend from when the ultimate decline comes sometime in old age.

I'll be 70 in less than 6 months (it's Dec 2016 now) and never expected to be in this kind of shape or have this kind of stamina, at any age. Then I discovered JumpRock at 55 and HoopRock at 66. Both are so much fun it's actually easy to get fit and stay that way; this blog is to encourage you to follow my example and be in great shape yourself going into old age - that's all I can promise for now - we'll see how actual old age goes. I'm highly optimistic.
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6 Responses to The Paradox of Sedentary Exhaustion

  1. Sheila says:

    I started jumping rope to music about a month ago…and I LOVE IT!! I’m 46 years old and had recently lost 60 lbs through various means. I’ve done every kind of exercise in the book, but ultimately the looming dread has made it difficult to stick with anything long term. Sometimes I find something that gives me impressive results but is so difficult that I can’t sustain the program and burn out, which invariably causes me to quit working out altogether! In my lifetime I’ve had to lose 50 lbs or more 3 times! I don’t want to ride that rollercoaster anymore! I just finished P90X and although it’s an incredible program I wanted variety and something “fun” to supplement it with. I love to jump at rock concerts and that’s when it hit me…jump rope!! I was so addicted immediately that it was hard to quit even when my calves were screaming out in pain! I could hardly walk for a week! And that was AFTER completing P90X! Congrats! You look amazing!!

    • Rich says:

      Hi Sheila,

      I’m impressed that you were able to pick it up so fast. Probably that P90X paying off. I’m also envious of the 9 extra years you get to jump, which is funny because I’ve been jumping for 9 years and in 9 years you’ll be my age when I started.

      I know what you mean about out-jumping your conditioning. I did the same thing with my calves when I first was able to run in place consistently. One area where it’s easy to jump past your conditioning at least in my case, is the lower back. When I first became able to jump for a prolonged period with my feet together while rotating my body I did it for a long time. No problem, there never is while I’m jumping, but later it seized up pretty good and I couldn’t jump for a few days. I’ve done the same thing, always the lower back, a few times when I get into new moves and will probably do it again. I’m no doctor, but my advice is if your back is spasmed at all, don’t try to loosen it up by jumping – it won’t work. However, at your age and after the P90X it may never be an issue.

      I hope you keep enjoying it as much as I do. For me it’s always fun; I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t. I think you’ll be amazed at how easily you acquire new moves and how your stamina builds. I have a P90X guy who subscribes to my YouTube videos. In his 30’s or 40’s I think. He’s in awesome shape and he’s commented more than once how much stamina I have. And it’s true, but I never had to work for it – JumpRock did it all and I had fun in the process.


  2. Red says:

    I too have recently started to break out of my sedentary exhaustion with exercise after school, the time when i used to feel most tired, and still do BEFORE my workout. I am only 18, yet I felt the effects of “sedentary exhaustion,” as you put it. Now i find myself chasing that endorphin high as often as i can, working out harder and longer as the months progressed. Like you advised, i started out with, in comparison to what i do now, a tiny, seemingly inconsequential workout. However, that success has built into an almost daily, hour-long workout. In my short 18 years, I have never felt better.

    • Rich says:

      That’s really great to hear. I spent my entire early adulthood in mediocre shape except maybe for a few months after I finished basic training, so I lost whatever residual fitness that you get for free in adolescence. Sounds like you’ll carry it right on through. And I know it’s impossible to think about now, but the trivial high you’re chasing now, the one that makes it all possible, will result in the really important high of being in good shape in old age – and you still get the endorphin high day to day – amazing how that never gets old.

  3. June says:

    I am pretty unmotivated when it comes to exercise but I’ve always liked jump roping and combining music to make it twice as enjoyable. Reading this was the little push I needed to start again. The name Jump Rock I’d never heard before, but it’s so clever. I love it. I also agree one hundred percent with you when you say the 3 magical things in life are the feeling after jump-rock’n, cats and music. I jump rocked this morning because I had been feeling really anxious and tense lately and after reading your blog and watching your video I knew I had to do something. I felt so good afterwards that I went for a swim and skateboarded too. Oh yeah, I also hanged out with my cat on the roof and now I’m listening to some jazz. :) Thanks so much!

    • Rich says:

      Thanks for validating my efforts!!! I made up the name JumpRock by the way. After literally thousands of evenings when I got home from work after programming all day I can confidently say that exercise is good for everything from lethargy to “please kill me now” angst. And in those thousands of days there are at least a hundred or so where I almost didn’t work out – the kind of days where you’re so down you can’t even get interested in feeling better and it seems impossible anyway, you just want to sulk and nurse your misery – but then I did and I would feel so good and be so glad that I didn’t give in. And afterwards, how miserable I felt before seemed as unreal as feeling good seemed impossible before. Once you develop that appetite and satisfy it regularly enough to make the subconscious association or whatever you want to call it, you’re golden. You said it exactly – “I knew I had to do something” – you become dissatisfied with feeling anxious / burnt-out, which once I hit middle age was a daily after work occurrence, to the point that you’d rather do something about it more than give in to it.

      Thanks again for your comments, you really made my day. :) :) :)