As a human being, I feel like it takes a lot to keep me functional.
I have to regularly eat things, but not too many things because that is obesity. I have to ensure I am intellectually engaged in something productive, but not too engaged because that's obsession. I have to form meaningful emotional connections with other people or possibly die from loneliness and despair.
But the thing that is most relevant to this conversation is the one where I have to regularly physically stress the sack of meat and bones that I inhabit or suffer the consequences.
You know, exercise.
Do Dolphins Get Fat?
I was a fat kid.
I was also a fat adult. Was being the key word.
Right now, I'm in the longest consecutive period of not-that-fat, which on reflection, is a pretty great achievement. I'll be sure to completely discount that later as I fail to celebrate the victory.
It's probably going on eight years since I was at my heaviest and I've gone up and down during that period, but once all the math is done, I'm a good 50 kilograms lighter than I was. That is a solid 30% of my entire mass and I can barely remember what it was like for the effect of gravity to be a growing concern.
I don't remember exactly what switch flicked in my brain. I was a few years into my first software development job, and I was a horrible employee. Playing too many video games, eating tonnes of food and just generally being a lazy piece of crap. I'm surprised I didn't get fired.
I would have fired me.
Then I have a vague memory of just deciding to...not be like that. I don't think there was a specific trigger, though I sort of remember seeing a photo of myself defrosting a freezer and being horrified at the amorphous white blob. No, not the refrigerator. Me.
Maybe it was that.
Anyway, that started a slow transformation involving all of the things you would expect, like eating better and being slightly more mobile than a sloth.
That movement eventually progressed into actual exercise. Lots and lots of exercise.
I just wanted to not be fat anymore.
What I didn't expect just how much of an effect the exercise would have on my mental state.
They Probably Don't Have A Chance
Going into writing this post, I assumed that when I exercised, I got flooded with a bunch of delicious feel-good brain chemicals as some sort of cosmic reward.
But science is a harsh mistress and does not care a whit for any preconceived notions. All it cares about is facts.
So, when I started looking for confirmation of what I thought was happening, what I found was that there is no conclusive reason why regular physical activity improves mood. It definitely does, it's just not immediately clear as to why it does.
I found this article particularly interesting. It mostly covers the effect of exercise on clinical depression (i.e. as a way to manage or mitigate it), but it also goes into some detail about the mechanisms of why this might be happening.
I'm not going to delve into that sort of detail here, but the endorphin hypothesis says that while exercise does in fact lead to an increased release of β-endorphins after the activity, the presence of these particular types of endorphins does not necessarily correlate to increased endorphin activity in the brain (i.e. where they would make a difference on mood).
This article says similar things, which is great, because you should never trust just a single source of information.
Regardless of the above, my own personal observations correlate exercise with feeling better mentally. The mechanism might be interesting, but it doesn't really matter in the scheme of things.
It's the effect that matters.
What With All The Time Travel And Aliens
I'm a morning exerciser.
I've tried to exercise in the evenings, but I find that the pattern doesn't hold. I'm often tired at the end of the day and low on willpower, so putting a hard thing there, is a recipe for disaster in my book.
So, morning exercise is where it's at for me.
When I exercise in the mornings, the rest of the day feels accomplishable.
After all, I've already done a hard thing. A hard physical thing, and that builds momentum while also leaving my brain at least a little bit bored and full of energy.
But it's more than just that.
Problems and stress are easier to deal with. I'm more motivated and engaged with whatever it is that I need to do for the day and then once I'm done, I don't feel bad about sitting down and relaxing.
I just plain old feel better.
Obviously, exercise requires willpower and discipline, which are both finite resources, so that can be challenging if they are already ebbing. But it really does feel like an investment with excellent returns.
The only downside that I can see is that when I don't exercise, everything is much harder. Like harder than it would be if I hadn't previously experienced the goodness and improved mood that comes from the exercise.
It almost feels like breaking a rubber-band because it's been stretched too far in one direction. It snaps in the other direction with similar force.
When I don't exercise, I get grumpy and irritable and I'm less motivated. Stuff is harder to deal with. That, in turn, is a self-perpetuating pattern, because when I feel like that I don't want to exercise. I have to rely on the cold, hard logical part of my brain to force me to do the thing that I know will help.
It's manageable, but still concerning, because I don't like the feeling that it could all come crashing down if I stop.
Man, That Was A Weird Game
I know, I know, I'm not exactly shattering any pre-conceived notions here. Exercise as a way to improve physical and mental health is well accepted both in the scientific community and in the general populace.
There is still value in talking about my own personal experience though. Especially if there is a chance that it might motivate someone else.
I am a combination of hundreds of different things. My upbringing, my early childhood experiences, the people around me, and my wonderful wife are just a few, but my decision to exercise regularly and incorporate it into my life is one of the reasons that I am where I am now.
Screaming into the void of the internet from a place of relative comfort.
And being okay with it.