Happy, peppy people exercise

Friday, May 2, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:18 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

A cat that lives outside will alternate between periods of relaxing and sleeping and the hyper-vigilance of killing small rodents, birds and bugs. When you move it into the house, it will be lethargic and sleep and relax most of the time because generally there is not much prey to be had. However, as time goes on, it will start to act crazy. It will often begin to attack table legs and chair legs and walls and feet. It will seem psychotic.

What it is doing, however, is stimulating itself. In the absence of the outside mice and birds and bugs, it will start to manufacture its own prey and excitement. Cats need this to stay happy and have a sense of purpose. After all, a cat is supposed to be a predator.

Humans do similar things. Almost 20,000 years ago, we used to walk 3 or 4 miles each day. We got our exercise and were physically strong and lean and healthy because we were doing what came naturally in our surroundings. Today, like the cat, we don’t have the opportunity or the need to walk miles each day. As the cat, we look for things to do that will keep us stimulated. We work out and go to gyms to pretend we are walking or running. We use StairMasters, elliptical trainers and treadmills. We lift weights pretending to be lifting rocks or logs. We pretend to do the things we did 20,000 years ago.

Humans are herd animals. We seek to be a part of a herd and thus relationships are important to us as well. We need to talk, laugh, express ourselves to other humans. We need to have positive experiences with those around us to feel a sense of purpose or belonging to the herd. When we don’t, we start to make up things in our head about the relationships we are in. However, humans think of themselves as prey as well as predators. In the absence of information and knowledge about those around us, we will identify more with being prey. This is a survival skill. In this role as prey we tend to pay attention to the potential threat of others and thus focus on the negative possibilities in the relationships. In the absence of soothing communications with those around us we become fearful. Like the cat, we tend to manufacture thoughts and feelings in our minds that are rooted in a genetic and instinctual survival mechanism.

However, this reflex can have a negative impact on our relationships. It can shape and mold our experience and assumptions about our relationships. Like the cat, we might seem irrational, reacting to things that are essentially made up. We might manufacture negative and fearful thoughts and ideas about our relationships and then act and behave as though they are real. This is great skill on the savanna or in the gym but not in our relationships.

So stay stimulated in your relationships. Talk with others. Regularly orchestrate and participate in activities with others. Seek the opinions and thoughts of those you are with, even if you disagree with them. Experiences with others will keep you out of your head and help you avoid losing a sense of belonging or purpose. Experiences with others will keep you from you falling into the role of prey. Interactions with others as a daily routine will help you avoid manufacturing negative ideas and thoughts about those around you and then responding to them as though they were real.

Keeping yourself physically stimulated is as important as intellectual and social stimulation. But forget all that stuff about calories, lean body mass and carbohydrates for a moment.

If you lived 20,000 years ago, you would have walked 3 or 4 miles each day. There was no other way to get around. People didn’t ride bikes or drive cars or even ride around on horseback yet. Because of all the exercise we did just to survive, we weren’t depressed back then and we slept better, too.

We know this because of today’s knowledge of our brain. When we exercise, we stimulate the same bundles of neurons that get targeted by some of today’s most effective antidepressants. Exercise stimulates the same regions of the brain that control our moods. Our physical makeup hasn’t changed much in the last 20,000 years. So it’s no coincidence that drug companies look at these areas of the brain when they develop anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications.

Pharmacologists and neurologists have studied the experience of the “runner’s high” or the euphoria many athletes experience after a long workout. This mood-exercise connection is why exercise is so important. Yes, it helps us lose weight, it helps us sleep better and we can get into smaller jeans. More importantly, though, it helps us feel better. Have you ever wondered why some people can stick with exercising and some can’t? Those who can are able to feel better quickly because of their exercise activity. Their mood improves because they stimulate the right regions in the brain. The right exercise fights depression and anxiety. The right exercise will differ from one person to another. Whereas one might find that running or jogging is stimulating, exciting and mood improving, another might find that walking, swimming or weight lifting is the activity that “tickles” the right spot.

The right exercise for you stimulates the same neurons and regions of the brain that antidepressants do for you as well. Just as not all antidepressants work in all people, not all exercise will work the same for all people. So you should determine which type of exercise improves your mood best before you start worrying about how long you actually have to do it. Certainly if you run for an hour every day, you will lose weight. However, if you hate running you will quickly quit and then miss the benefits of improved mood and weight loss. On the other hand, if you start with enjoyable exercise, you will likely feel better immediately, stick with it and lose weight, too. So exercise can really be a natural high.

We were made for regular exercise. We are becoming more depressed and anxious because we move less and less. Look at how long we will drive around the superstore parking lot to avoid walking an extra 100 feet. The less we exercise, the less we stimulate our bodies and brains and the more depressed we become.

So exercise. Even a little. You don’t have to join an expensive gym or purchase some expensive video exercise program. Don’t stress out about getting your heart rate into the “target” zone for the ideal number of minutes. Just move your body longer distances throughout the day. Do it with other people, too. That is what your mind and body are made to do. Our ancestors of 20,000 years ago didn’t work out as an activity. They didn’t lift weights. They lifted rocks and logs. They didn’t use a treadmill or stair climbers. They walked everywhere and up and down hills with one another. They didn’t try to sweat and keep their heart rate “up.” No! They tried to conserve energy and do the minimal amount of exertion. However, the required amount of exertion was much higher than it is today. If you do only today’s required amount of exercise and you get the majority of your intellectual and social stimulation via television or the computer, you are going to get depressed, and yes, fat, too.

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