As I See It: Rediscovering The Big Fresh
June 20, 2016 Victor Rozek
Exercise has always been my salvation. Over the years the jobs I’ve held varied in challenge and satisfaction. But whether the work turned out to be exceptionally demanding or excruciatingly dull, exercise was my deliverance. It was a curative constant guaranteed to soften the stress and alleviate the boredom.
And on those occasions when my youthful righteousness spilled over and I felt compelled to lecture my manager, exercise served as the antidote to the inappropriate expression of strong feelings. After all, there’s only so much emoting welcome in the workplace. Laughter is one thing; frustration, ah, no. Sadness or anger, not so much.
As anyone who has ever been frustrated at work knows stuffing strong emotions for too long guarantees they will leak out in rude behaviors. I won’t detail my own excesses (just in case someone who knows me happens to read this), but suffice it to say regular exercise reigned in the worst of my impulses. In fact, exercise was working so well for me that I formed a theory. With all the life experience of a 20-something, I deduced that people who were perpetually angry, or chronically depressed or–in the extreme–became suicidal or homicidal, probably weren’t exercising enough. (Hey, I know it’s simplistic, but I was too young for nuance.)
Well, I’m happy to announce that research finally caught up with me. The National Academy of Science studied the effects on people who spent 90 minutes walking in nature. As recounted by Michael Pirrone on wimp.com, they reported “far lower levels of brooding, or obsessive worry.”
Admittedly, that’s anecdotal, and worth about as much as my youthful gut feeling, which was eerily similar to what happens when I eat a black bean burger. But the guys in the lab coats wanted, you know, actual proof. So they scanned the brains of their test subjects. There were two groups of participants. The first group was told to walk in urban environments. The second, hiked in nature. The findings from the first group resembled the old gag line: They did a brain scan and they found nothing. Which actually matched the experience of the urban walkers who reported no noticeable benefits. Apparently breathing car exhaust has no curative value.
But in the brains of the nature walkers the scan found “decreased blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex.” If, like me, that bit of news means nothing to you, Pirrone clarifies: “Increased blood flow to this region of the brain is associated with bad moods. Everything from feeling sad about something, to worrying, to major depression seem to be tied to this brain region.” Hiking in the outdoors, it appears, is a chocolate chip cookie for the mind–it just makes you feel better.
All of which is problematic because young Americans avoid the outdoors like Johnny Manziel avoids sobriety. In the last 20 years outdoor activities for kids have shrunk by half. Pirrone reports that “only 6 percent of children will play outside on their own in a typical week.” God forbid they should swallow some dirt.
Recently my wife and I facilitated a workshop in a beautiful mountain setting. One of the participants brought her children and a caregiver to play with them while we were in session. She reported that, after one day, her 5-year old complained that he didn’t like it there–he “missed his Internet.”
Not surprisingly, what kids do ingest is screen time. Eight hours a day, each and every day. Video games, phones, computer tablets, television. From an early age kids learn to transfer much of their negative energy and stress to social media. As they grow, the temptation to express anonymous hostility grows right along with them. They have few other outlets. Overall, notes Pirrone, adults and kids “now spend 93 percent of their time inside a building or vehicle.” For those of us who grew up in a pre-screen era, that sounds unnatural and claustrophobic.
Studies also confirm that getting out into the Big Fresh and being active can reduce the symptoms of ADHD, which is becoming epidemic in over-stimulated youth. Longer stints in the backcountry produce still greater benefits. People tested after a four-day excursion during which they had no access to technology, “scored a whopping 50 percent higher” on a creative potential test. Our ability to think creatively, concludes Pirrone, “is being overwhelmed by the constant stimulus of digital, indoor living.” Ironically, it was the Marquis de Sade who said: “Your body is the church where nature asks to be reverenced.”
But how much exercise is enough? How much is ideal? And is too much exercise harmful? The New York Times reports that: “two new impressively large-scale studies provide some clarity.” The larger study headed by the National Cancer Institute and Harvard University, gathered information over a 14-year period on the exercise habits of over 661,000 adults, “most of them middle-aged.”
Some exercised only by pressing the TV remote, which is to say not at all; while on the other extreme, some worked out for three hours or more each day, which sounds exhausting. (Incidentally, the current recommended guidelines suggest exercising about 2.5 hours per week.)
Not surprisingly, those who eschewed any form of exercise “were at the highest risk of early death.” Just minimal exercise lowered that risk by 20 percent. Those who met the recommended guidelines dropped their risk by 31 percent. And those who managed an hour of exercise per day maxed out the benefits by lowering their chance of early demise by 39 percent. For the workout warriors, additional time spent in the gym or on the track produced no additional benefits, but nor did it cause any harm.
But while excessive time spent exercising produces limited returns, a second study of 200,000 Australians found that vigorous exercise (like running verses walking) extends life expectancy as well but has essentially the same benefits as moderate exercise. Unfortunately, years of vigorous training such as distance running can also hasten knee damage. Trust me, I know this one. In other words, exercising vigorously will do you no harm–until it does.
Abandoning the natural world for a life constrained by walls and windows comes with a price: the vitality of the body and the crispness of mind. Screen time at work followed by screen time at home is extensive but not optimal. Passivity may soothe an overheated mind but does little for the body where tension is stored.
Back in my Silicon Valley days, I was fortunate enough to work for one of the early companies to adopt the campus model. Every exercise option a tense human being could reasonably want was there for our use. For employees working in a high stress environment, it was like a candy store–or perhaps more accurately, a drug store where job-related complaints could be assuaged. Although the facility’s users probably didn’t think of it this way, exercise was a crucial form of self-care that made other workplace virtues–like concentration, stamina, and maintaining a positive attitude–possible.
It’s a big return for an investment of only a few hours per week. And if longevity and mental sharpness aren’t enough of a motivation, listen to Jim Rohn: “Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”