Friday, August 31, 2012

The joy of instant gratification

Jane Brody, a committed middle-aged walker, biker, and swimmer, presents in the NYT some new ideas for the promotion of aerobic exercise (“Changing Our Tune on Exercise”). According to some health experts, the promise of better health in some distant future and even a postponed death does not provide a sufficiently strong incentive for most individuals to stick to an exercise routine. To them, such potential benefits seem “distant and theoretical” (with men, who often have a stronger penchant for detached abstraction, being a bit more inclined to take them seriously). And if some individuals took up exercise in order to slim down, the prospects can be even worse. As most are bound to fall short of any notable results, such body-conscious exercisers are likely to face disappointment and even lower self-esteem.

So, what is to be done in order to motivate more people to keep up an exercise schedule? 

It seems the best approach would be to portray exercise “as a compelling behavior that can benefit us today” – by enhancing our “current well-being and happiness.” In other words, reposition aerobic exercise by emphasizing the endorphin kick it can provide, not some anti-pie in the sky.

This is indeed an immediate and uplifting effect. To a point where the endorphin high produced by exercise can even become addictive. A case in point is Scott Jurek, an ultramarathoner who routinely runs in 100 mile races. In his best-selling book, Eat & Run, he brags casually that to him and other ultramarathoners “hallucinations and vomiting … are like grass stains to Little Leaguers.” These are effects usually associated with the abuse of powerful drugs, but can apparently be induced by extreme running, too. And less extreme forms of aerobic exercise can probably produce milder, but sustained similar effects on the brain and body.

All this raises in my mind a curious question. Are we, perhaps, at a point where sobriety, in the broadest sense, is no longer a viable option for most of us? And where the real choice is between less and more healthy forms of addiction? If this is the case, then aerobic exercise should really be embraced as a healthy option; along side some others – for example – my personal favorite – “deep reading” (from a hard copy, preferably a book or a quality periodical). These are activities which both seem to energize the brain at the cellular level and to enhance the formation and long-term potentiation of new neural connections (with exercise even spurring neurogenesis, the formation of new neurons).

As with most good things, there are, unfortunately, some potential complications in this uplifting story line. According to some neuroscientists, exercise can also prime the brain for addiction to harmful substances (and, who knows, maybe to some less healthy compulsive behaviors like gambling or videogaming?). Exercise generally enhances brain plasticity and thus learning; and all forms of addiction involve some sort of twisted learning – particularly of associations between various environmental cues and rituals, and the craving for a renewed high. Most experts still claim the health benefits from exercise outweigh the risks, but this is a statistical generalization. If in your case an exercise regimen does predispose you to a harmful addiction (because of some genetic or other vulnerability), such an “evidence-based” conclusion may not hold much water.

Such complications perhaps demonstrate that the endorphin kick produced by aerobic exercise is really the thing that should matter most. But even there things can get murky. Brody, who obviously wants to conclude her peace on a high note (after she has perhaps come back exhilarated from her mini-triathlon), says that what helps her stick to her exercise schedule is the way it makes her “feel: more energized, less stressed, more productive, more engaged and yes, happier – better able to smell the roses and cope with the inevitable frustrations of daily life.” Most of this sounds credible, but I am not sure about those roses. According to some research, addiction to any substance (or compulsive behavior?) may desensitize the brain to other forms of stimulation and thus dampen one’s ability to enjoy the smaller pleasures of life. Hopefully, this won’t happen to you, but where is the guarantee?

Well, it’s too complicated. So let’s really stick to that endorphin high