I remember well the hard times during my divorce. An angry voicemail, an upcoming court date about child custody, simply the yawning abyss of the unknown. Every fiber in my being felt raw and agitated, and I could barely concentrate. That’s when I pulled out the big guns.I don’t remember how I discovered this most powerful tool, but once I experienced its potency I used it as frequently as I could. My secret weapon was walking (fast) on my treadmill while listening to recordings of inspirational speakers. I would begin my workout feeling jittery and snappish, and at the end of the hour I would be filled with not just calm, but a generosity of spirit that can only come from the absolute trust that all is well.
I didn’t take the time to ask myself why this intervention was so effective. (The word “intervention” in terms of an activity or exercise wasn’t even something I tended to throw around. “Survival” was more like it.) But now it’s easy for me to see why it worked.
Punch One – Exercise
Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky outlines some compelling findings on the restorative power of exercise in her book The How of Happiness. She begins by telling about an experiment that showed exercise to be more effective in treating depression than Zoloft, even 6 months after the end of the treatment. But why? Lyubomirsky boils it down to three main reasons:
1. Exercising and becoming physically stronger makes us feel stronger. That’s because we are better able to meet physical challenges and we are more flexible so we are less likely to become injured, but it also is a psychological accomplishment to begin and maintain an exercise regime. This boosts our confidence (or “self-efficacy,” in psychological speak).
2. Exercise can, in the best of circumstances, bring about flow (that state in which you are so fully engaged that you lose all track of time) – and, if not flow, it tends to at least distract us from troubles and worries. This calming effect of exercise lasts for hours, even after the exercise session is finished. Lyubomirsky points out that the impact is similar to the benefits of meditation.
3. When exercising with others, the activity provides an opportunity for social connection.
4. Exercise has been shown to raise levels of serotonin, which acts like a natural Prozac.
All of the above explanations for why exercise provides a pick-me-up ring true for my self-prescribed divorce positive intervention. All of them, except for #3, the social connection explanation. But I believe that’s where my inspirational CDs come into play.
Punch Two – Inspirational Speakers
My treadmill is in my basement. It’s pretty isolated from the rest of the world. Pretty much all you can see out the windows is sky or the occasional feet of a passer-by. So it would certainly look to the occasional spider on the wall like I was sweating all by myself. But I’ll tell you what – it sure didn’t feel that way to me. I had my headset on and my mind and heart were cracked open by the likes of Pema Chodron, Richard Rohr, Jack Kornfield, and Eckhart Tolle. The messages they espoused in such gentle yet significant ways were ones of simplicity, of gratitude for this moment, of connection to all other beings who habitate this planet. When I listened to their heartfelt messages I was gradually transported to a worldview that made my divorce troubles seem insignificant, both in comparison to what others might be enduring, but also in a way that helped me recognize their fleeting nature. This moment is full, yes, with goodness and plenty, and the troubles that plague me were not a problem two years ago, and they will be utterly forgotten in fifty. I believe what I was experiencing was what psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls elevation. And I definitely felt connected.
I’m a Lover, Not a FighterStepping off my treadmill, then, I was truly transformed. No more anxiety, and it often didn’t return for hours or days. I felt strong, physically and emotionally, I felt energized, and I felt generous in my heart. Not only did I not have to worry about the thing that had been troubling me, but I could and often did reach out to others with the intention of bringing joy to them. So if you had asked me then why or how my “positive intervention” was working, I would have shrugged my shoulders, but now I feel empowered by the explanations – so much so that I think I’ll go jump on my treadmill.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appears in the first PPND book, Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves.
Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: a scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: The Penguin Press.
The following are audio resources:
Boxer, Treadmill courtesy of elkit, Planet Earth
Line drawing of treadmill and headphones by Kevin Gillespie
Kirsten, There is one other major reason why exercise might have helped you – it increases parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity. Research shows that people with anxiety have lower levels of PNS – and exercise increases PNS. Check out the article that I wrote for PPND for more information on PNS.
Kristen, Great article– thanks! No matter what the cause of anxiety, your prescription is a great one: combining exercise with connection. It’s a wonderful message– thanks for sharing it.
Do you have any insight to share for those of us who really hate to exercise? I honestly tried to drink a big glass of V8 today and couldn’t get past 3 sips. I exercise even less than I drink V8. What are some ideas for non-traditional exercise that could be as effective? I personally want to do more of the exercise thing but I find the treadmill & exercise machines thoroughly pointless. Its like trying to market accounting as a sexy job choice.
Terrific article, Kirsten! And bravo for you for keeping your chin up and your feet moving amidst some personal trying times. Perseverance must be a tog strength of yours! As an avid yogi, runner, and snowboarder, I too, can relate to the natural high that comes after a good workout. Keep up the great work! And, let’s schedule a future workout together to experience even more psychological benefits. As Haidt taught us, “moving together in time” can do wonders!
Jeff, if there’s anything you enjoy that get you moving, can you build more of that into your life? Even small increases in activity can be beneficial!
Thanks, Wayne, for the reminder about parasympathetic nervous system activity and its impact on overall resilience. I am reminded of the powerful tool that mindfulness is, and I think that exercise is just one important tool in the larger picture. There are many gates to resilience.
Wouldn’t it be cool if we practiced them all???
Thanks for the feedback, Christine. I do think that exercise and connection are important for high functioning in all of our lives – even those who are not going through traumatic life events. I’m glad you found the article worthwhile.
Jeff, I totally hear what you’re saying about exercise. Truth is, before my divorce process I barely exercised at all. I felt about it the way you seem to.
I had the good fortune of listening to Ray Fowler speak to the current MAPP students this weekend, and he is a big proponent of exercise. He outlined all kinds of really compelling data about its benefits, including better cognitive functioning, greater longevity, better health for much longer in life (so those longer years are not spent suffering), and, yes, a better sex life. But most compelling of all, I think, is that once you get over the hurdle of it feeling like work (and, yes, it does at first) it actually becomes self-sustaining because it is enjoyable. I’ll tell you from my own personal experience that when I’m exercising regularly I have more energy, have fewer headaches (something I’m prone to), and feel sexier. And I actually look forward to my workouts! (Usually.)
If you want something to motivate you further, I suggest you read Spark by John Ratey and Eric Hagerman.
Thanks, Suzie, for your enthusiastic endorsement. I know you’re an avid exerciser and your zest is a testament to its power!
Jeff, try savouring the exercise experience when you finish. It does actually feel good
kirsten – you can exercise mindfully – its called tai chi & yoga and its almost as beneficial as cardiovascular exercise.
Thanks Kirsten for another great article! You know I appreciate the value of exercise/movement through the lifespan. I have seen my dance/fitness students, ranging from 18 – 100+ years gain many positive psychological benefits over the years. Exercise is a viable, important and necessary Positive Psychological Intervention.
The Psychology of Exercise is an exciting new field, which addresses the average person, different from Sports Psychology, which is geared to athletic performance. Psychology of Exercise addresses motivation, inspiration, goal setting and adherence. In 2005, Gavin discussed Exercise and Personality with regard to self efficacy and inspiration. He believed that looking at exercise and personality type may be a key to help getting people to exercise more and motivating people to keep moving. Briefly, he recommends, if you are:
Social, try Group Fitness class, Spinning, Aqua classes
Spontaneous, try Kickboxing, Karate, or Salsa dance
Self-Motivated, try Jogging, Swimming, Indoor climbing
Competitive, try Team Sports, Spinning, Mini-Triathlons
Aggressive, try Boxing, Martial Arts, Competitive Running
Focused, try Tae Kwon Do, Yoga, Pilates
Risk-seeking, Outdoor Climbing, Surfing, Skiing, Circuits
As Joseph Campbell said, ‘Follow your bliss.” Another thought is to think about what you liked to do as a kid. Make it fun and playful. In the 1440 minutes of every day, we just need 30 minutes of movement for health.
Today, a student told me that my class saved her life. She is a divorced women who has had some real tragedy in her life – overian cancer, and while she was at her summer home in Ocean Grove, the NY TIMES called to ask her about her NYC apartment that blew up, killing many of her friends. say that my class has “saved her life.” This is heady stuff, but the communitas that Jon Haidt talks about is real- the combination of movement (to music), in unison has the potential to help people survive and thrive .
Oops, here’s my last paragraph corrected:
Today, a student told me that my class saved her life. She is a divorced women who has had some real tragedy in her life – overian cancer, and while she was at her summer home in Ocean Grove, the NY TIMES called to ask her about her NYC apartment that blew up, killing many of her friends. This is heady stuff, but the communitas that Jon Haidt talks about is real- the combination of movement (to music), in unison has the potential to help people survive and thrive .
Good points, Wayne and Elaine.
There are lots of options, and finding the right fit is definitely key to sustaining an exercise program.
Wayne, I think I do exercise mindfully when I’m on my treadmill and listening to my inspirational speakers…
Kirsten, it depends on your definition of mindfulness. American version is that its about attention to the now – eastern is that its attention to thoughts without judgement.
Please clarify. I see paying full attention to the now as closely linked to letting go of thoughts. And isn’t that the point of thoughts without judgment? If a thought of retribution comes into my mind, if I am fully present I can observe that thought in the here and now – free of it being hooked to past trespass – recognize it with an almost dispassionate curiosity, and then let it go. Becuase in the here and now I have no need for retribution.
I think the aim of seeing thoughts without judgment is to let them go – to see that they serve no real purpose. No?
Kirsten, you are engaged in a passive version of mindfulness called distraction – which is really powerful. But could you do it without a book/tape? Then you have a tool for life – not just a tool for the treadmill
And it’s a lovely circle and upward spiral of positive emotions. I get more zest from exercise which in turn enables me to exercise even more! Once you start, you don’t want to stop!
I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to Pema Chodron or other meditation authors, but in the books they speak very much about being here in the present moment – paying attention to your breath, the movements of your body, etc. They sometimes include guided meditations. In those moments, and even sometimes when they are speaking theoretically about mindfulness concepts I will focus wholly on my somatic experience.
So is the audiobook a distraction? Sometimes. But it’s more than distraction when it’s actually aiding my awareness of my body in this moment in time.
Does this make any sense?
Kirsten, I really enjoyed your article. I often say that “running is my prozac” and I can’t imagine navigating the stormy waters of divorce or other storms (like a job layoff) without it. I especially like how you describe the end of exercise, the calming, the “all is well” we feel at the end, as we stand dripping sweat, slowing our breathing and just being alive in that moment.