This morning I happened to be running through a pass in the Rocky Mountains. I live in Wisconsin and partake of gorgeous rolling farms views regularly. But today's run was stunning and new and gifted me with my first understanding of purple mountain majesty, my first glimpse of a white-striped magpie and my first inhale of crisp blue Montana sky. The run also gifted me with almost unbearable happiness.
But that's not out of the ordinary for me. At about 42 minutes in today, I was washed with a powerful, almost incapacitating feeling of gratefulness. I was flooded in beauty, joy and hope. Last Wednesday in a fluorescent-lit, glossy-varnished gym, with dance music propelling a sweaty circuit routine, I felt the same river of thankfulness overtake me - right around Burpee 10, 40 minutes in. Though it's been 18 years since I weaned my fourth child, I recognized the flush as being quite akin to the bliss I often experienced when a tiny warm baby latched on and set my milk flowing. Like the release of endorphins triggered by working out, the let-down response of a lactating mother is a chemical reaction. Endorphin, by the way, includes the root word morphine and describes a class of body-produced polypeptides that bind to receptors in the brain to kill pain, reduce cravings and lift mood. Any questions?
I will never nurse a baby again and feel that outrageous, unreasonable sense of well-being, but I can give myself something pretty damn close by committing to being boss - everyday. Or most. Science backs me up on this - read the excellent and funny Younger Next Year books - and my own experience is conclusive. Regular cardio-zone heart rate workouts of at least 45 minutes on least three days a week create a cascade of benefits at any age - including initiating brain cell growth, saving memory, re-building bone loss, increasing flexibility, restoring balance and making muscle, as well as enhancing emotional well-being and confidence.
I'm a crazy-busy small-scale farmer, agriculture advocate and community organizer. And I teach bootcamp in my local high school gym to other such obligated people from 4:30am to 6:30am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On the off days, I like to run or swim. But sometimes I get busy and that's when my troubles begin. On days when I feel down or hopeless or defeated, if I find the presence of mind to reflect on my day, more often than not I realize that I simply skipped a workout.
Depressed by nature? Defeated by hard times? Exhausted from raising toddlers, doing policy work or writing computer programs? Saddened by set-backs and surprises? Nothing will help you cope better than loving yourself by working your body - quite hard - every single day. While I'm not promising the sort of euphoric waterfall I regularly experience - I hesitate to promise anything since I was disappointed by a certain childbirth education video that assured me I would feel just that upon pushing out the babies mentioned above - regular exercise will most certainly improve your mood and abilities, for both the short and the long term. Again - science.
On days when I know I have a tough task that requires a lot of mental effort and strategy, I make a point of working out, even if I am traveling for meetings and have to get up early and treadmill in a dimly-lit hotel gym during a snow storm. I personally think running is the greatest travel workout, because it can be done for free, without equipment, and allows me to quickly and quietly explore an unfamiliar place, with all of its fresh sights, sounds and smells. But I've been known to pull up a youtube workout on my laptop and get 'er done on the hotel room carpet.
I'm not in such a situation this week, however. Got another run like today's ahead of me tomorrow and the next day. And dips in mineral hot springs in between. I'm told there are wild bighorn sheep that scale the steep rocky foothills that rise on either side of my highway running route, so I'll have to keep a lookout for those. I truly have so much to be thankful for, including the ability and opportunity to use my body well -and my workouts enable me to fully FEEL the truth.