How Exercise Makes Us Feel

That Exercise FeelingHow did you feel after your last workout? (Apply as many adjectives as fit the occasion.) Now think about how others perceive exercise. Let’s say you stop a random hundred people on the street and ask them how exercise makes/would make them feel. I’m going to guess you’d get an interesting cross-section of answers, likely slanted toward the negative (mostly from people who don’t regularly exercise, but – hey – that’s just MY guess, right?). Call me cynical, but when many people think about exercise, I think their minds go directly to pain, soreness, sweat, and the general unpleasantness of it all. That’s unfortunate to say the least. I’m not going to claim that my most intensive workouts don’t leave me tired or even slightly sore (genuine pain is something different). Nonetheless, I get way too much out of my Primal exercise to feel it’s something to be “endured” – or even avoided. This brings me to those other answers – the ones more likely from folks who exercise on a regular basis (whether their workouts involve gym time, outdoor play, an active hobby or something else). What else does exercise make us feel – in the moment, after the workout and later once the results start showing?

Let’s just jump right in, shall we?

The Release

A friend of Carrie’s described it this way: “I walk out the door and leave all the day’s stress – the work pressures, the kids’ whining, the messy kitchen, the school paperwork. As I walk faster and quickly begin to run, it’s like shedding layers of weight and moving into flight.” I love that observation. When we’re in our bodies, we have a better chance of being in the present. We get a break from neurotic worry and obsessive planning that can drive too many of our waking hours. (If we find ourselves still mired in self-talk during workouts, we either need to find something more intense or figure out a way to truly play. It’s thankfully difficult to make a mental shopping list while playing a game of Ultimate.)

When we strip exercise of “obligation,” we can appreciate the opportunities it gives us to live differently for a time. When we start to see our workouts as the break we look forward to – or a seamless part of enjoying life and socialization – instead of a personal task to cram in, something essential opens. It’s a threshold I would see my clients cross (and one I rediscovered for myself when fitness again became personal rather than primarily professional). In my opinion, the best rewards – both physical and psychological – come past that threshold.

The Pride

It doesn’t matter in the moment whether you skipped five workouts before this one. Right now you’re moving, and (barring a serious penchant for self-flagellation) there’s a real gratification to this fact that cancels out the rest. You’re lapping everyone who’s at home sitting on the couch. This matters. And the sense of accomplishment only grows with time. Each additional mile run, every better race time, each increase in poundage lifted boosts the feeling. It’s not just a fitness increase. It’s a victory over our perceived limitations as well as a win for discipline and self-management.

The “High”

We work for it, to be sure, but it can feel like a peak experience when it does. At times, I’d say, it puts me at the very center of being, which is kind of a Zen take on what is really an activation of the body’s endorphin release and endocannabinoid system. (PDF) (Whose attention perked up at the mention of cannabinoid?) The fact is, when we’re exercising, we’re shifting all kinds of biochemical gears (everything from neurotransmitter levels, BDNF release and endocannabinoid engagement) because the body perceives our efforts as a physical stress and responds with natural pain-relieving strategies. In longer duration, high intensity activity, the response (whether a primary cause of the endorphin or the endocannabinoid system) can impact emotion as well as physical sensation. Those who have felt the full-on high won’t forget it.

The Clarity

When I’m stuck on something – a work issue, writer’s block, a personal question – moving is about the only thing that makes sense. My best ideas come when I’m biking or walking – or just after a good workout. While my focus during lifting or sprinting is definitely on the action itself, other less intense activities allow me to wander mentally. (It’s like being able to view a star out of the corner of your eye but missing it when you’re searching for it head on.) The result, as research illuminates, is a surprisingly unconscious productivity.

If we’re talking about the post-workout window, it doesn’t matter what I did for exercise. My mind is again firing on all cylinders. Of course, there’s real physical sense to this phenomenon. Exercise literally and figuratively gets “the blood flowing” to our brains. It stimulates the processes that support new neuronal growth and connections as well as brain plasticity and better recall. It’s the kind of thing that makes you re-envision how you should spend that afternoon break.

The Confidence

There’s a certain self-assurance that comes from improving and pushing yourself physically. You know you’re taking responsibility for your health, but it’s something else, too. I think it’s owning your own power as a physical being. I’ve seen thousands of people – clients and readers (hello, success stories!) who said getting fit led to a major emotional and even social transformation in their lives. Likewise, it goes the other way. Over the years I’ve worked with a number of people who have overcome personal crises and come to me for advice saying “I want the outside to be as strong as I feel on the inside now.” Either way, the connection is the same. Physical resilience goes hand-in-hand with self-possession.

The Calm

I call this the “good exhaustion.” It’s in large part the sedative aspect of the runner’s high chemical cascade. Once we’re not moving anymore and there’s no “pain” to alleviate, we’re left for a while with the tail end of feel-good chemicals and can just bask in the contentment. For myself, I think the calm also comes from the sensation that my muscles have been used and stretched. I’ve lived my animal purpose for the day. A neighbor who walks her dog several times a day said once, “A good dog is a tired dog.” I’d add happy dog – and hominid to that.

The Energy

Sure, we’re riding the surge right after a workout, but I’m also thinking of the growing constancy of energy when exercise becomes a regular habit. Perhaps it’s the better sleep we enjoy or maybe the memory of feeling so energized during the workout itself. Or maybe it’s something more. University of Georgia researchers found exercise substantially reduced the fatigue symptoms of sedentary subjects all while it increased their energy (20% according to their estimates). It turns out it doesn’t take much. The low-level cardio folks actually experienced more of a reduction in fatigue (65%) than those who did more intense work (49%).

The Sexiness

Admit it: you feel better about your body after you work out. (Why do we ever feel guilty about this – like it’s a secret we have to keep under wraps?) It’s part of the energy surge but something “more.” Feeling good naked continually develops over time, with research suggesting our body image can change within mere weeks. However, I think it can begin to shift the moment we let it. Few things – other than sex itself, have the power to put us back in our bodies in quite the same way as exercise. All of the aforementioned benefits come together – the sense of energy, power, release, the high – and converge to make us feel more alive, impassioned and maybe even virile. You might end gym time sweaty and fatigued, but after a shower you might find yourself walking differently and “working” that workout. No?

Well, I’d say the short-term discomfort pales in comparison to exercise’s bigger benefits. (Am I wrong?) How does exercise make YOU feel? Any of the above? Something not on the list? Thanks for reading, everybody, and have a good end to your week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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