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Fitness Feedback

Or, why you’d want to spend three hours trail running


I remember the first time that I ran long enough to not be able to think about anything. I had been running for three hours in the woods on one of my long training runs, and I was simply no longer able to think. In one part of my mind, I could only focus on the mechanics. One foot in front of the other. The sound of my feet on the trail. The other part of my mind was like an observer: feeling what was happening, but without thought or judgment about it. No past. No future. Just pure experience. This is the only meditation I have ever been able to do. I call it “forced presencing”, because with enough continuous physical activity, my mind will have no choice but to be in this state. It is amazing.

It took a while to get to the point where I could run for three hours. One thing that helped me get there is the feedback loop of fitness to happiness. I think that the concept of fitness leading to happiness is something that most people think they understand, but until they’ve experienced it, they don’t really understand it. I know I didn’t, until I was fit enough to spend hours trail running.


Our bodies, ourselves

Our experience of everything happens through our bodies. When our bodies are sick, we don’t feel very happy. When our bodies are not fit, we also don’t feel very happy—but it’s harder to notice. If you are fit, you tend to feel a whole lot happier than when you’re not. You really notice it.

The last couple of years have been a really stressful time for me as a parent, as is the experience of many parents with children in junior high and high school. We are always busy—dealing with competing schedules from school, work, sports and after school activities. We’ve had a lot of other changes in our lives, with me taking a new job a little over a year ago, moving, and trying to sell our house. I know that my lifestyle of being fit has helped me get through these challenges. Regular, intense exercise has helped me keep my mind clear, my body fit and outlook positive.

Through my own fitness journey, I have learned there are some simple rules, defined by our evolution, that we should be aware of if we want to take steps toward being happier people:

  1. We are all natural endurance athletes.
  2. The evolution of our minds has far outpaced our biology.
  3. We have a feedback system that rewards fitness with happiness.

We are all natural endurance athletes

Our early ancestors were hunter-gatherers. A typical hunter-gatherer walks 5-10 miles a day. Compare that with a typical chimp that walks 2-3 kilometers a day. Early humans had to have great physical endurance in order to survive. Their bodies, (and of course, ours), have evolved physical features for endurance. Evolutionary biologist Daniel Liberman explains in this interview about his research:

“[We have evolved] short toes that require less energy to stabilize and generate less shock when running; the Achilles tendon that stores and releases energy appropriately as we run; the large gluteus maximus muscles that steady the trunk; and stabilization of the head.
There are special mechanisms—the semicircular canals in human heads are greatly enlarged relative to apes, for instance—that give us a much greater ability to perceive and react to rapid accelerations of the head.”

Early humans evolved to become persistence hunters—running down prey to the point of exhaustion. They could do this because they were built for it: they had physical features evolved for endurance; including sweat glands that allowed them to cool down, while their prey had to slow down to pant. They had another evolutionary advantage to help them endure this type of lifestyle: the runner’s high.

The runner’s high is the feeling of euphoria, (often described as being “in the zone”), that keeps us going when we’ve been working hard during a workout or a run. It’s an evolutionary selection that helps us to keep engaging in aerobic activity after we have begun. Research indicates that animals who have evolved for endurance experience it, (like humans and dogs), but other animals, like ferrets, do not.

We are all endurance athletes by design. We were built for it, and when we endure continuous physical activity, evolution rewards us with a “high”. The bad news is: evolution will not compel us to get off the couch in the first place.


The evolution of our minds has far outpaced our biology

It took millions of years to evolve to the point where people developed written language. It was a very slow process, but after that point, our evolution took off at an astounding rate—and it happened within our minds. Stephen Hawking has a great explanation of this process in his excellent essay on life in the universe:

“…in the last ten thousand years or so, we have been in what might be called, an external transmission phase [of evolution]. In this, the internal record of information, handed down to succeeding generations in DNA, has not changed significantly. But the external record, in books, and other long lasting forms of storage, has grown enormously. Some people would use the term, evolution, only for the internally transmitted genetic material, and would object to it being applied to information handed down externally. But I think that is too narrow a view. We are more than just our genes. We may be no stronger, or inherently more intelligent, than our cave man ancestors. But what distinguishes us from them, is the knowledge that we have accumulated over the last ten thousand years”

…and the fact that we no longer have to use our bodies in the way they did to live.

How can we be motivated to exercise? Unlike sex or eating, most people don’t long to begin exercising. There was never any selection pressure on our ancestors that resulted in a biological need to exercise—they did nothing but exercise! They had to, in order to live. The runner’s high would help keep them going during an exhausting chase of their quadrupedel prey, but I assure you, cavemen did not sleep in.

And now, here we are in the 21st century, with almost the same bodies as our Cro-Magnon ancestors, but living in vastly more evolved societies. We are free from having to perform physical labor in order to live. Now we have to think about exercise as a health concern—physically and mentally.


Feedback loops

Our evolution won’t help us get off the couch, but it will help us to keep exercising if we do. This leaves us with a hurdle to get over in order to be fit: we need to have the discipline to engage in regular, intense exercise without the evolutionary accelerator to desire to do so.

The good news is, once the habit is established, people discover two remarkable feedback loops: the desire to continue on during the exercise, and the desire for exercise later.

We all know someone who just has to get out for a run, or to the gym, every couple of days or they’ll go crazy. Are they just obnoxious and self-obsessed, or is something else at play? I argue that these types of people are engaged in fitness feedback. They have learned that being fit makes them feel good, and they yearn for more. It’s like an addiction, only a healthy one to have.

We’ve all seen one of these posted on Facebook by our fit friends.

The fitness freaks all agree that no one ever regrets that workout, or that run, or that yoga class, etc. What is going on physically and mentally that makes people feel this way? Even though the workout is hard while it’s happening, afterward they remember the good feeling more than the pain.

As this pattern repeats with regularity, they crave the feeling more and more. There is also a sense of accomplishment, and over time, physical changes to the body that work to reinforce the feedback loop. Go get some exercise, and endorphins are released in your brain, making you feel good. When you are done, you’re left with a sense of accomplishment. Your body feels tired, but it also feels good. Go back for more and repeat the cycle. Over time, your body changes—becomes stronger, more fit. You feel even better. If you exercise with others, you make connections through the shared experience. You want more. It’s a feedback loop.

I think the runner’s high can help get people started—with immediate reward for hard work. But, over time, something else emerges: feeling happier in everyday life. In the book The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer by Gretchen Reynolds, the author cites a study where female rats allowed to run at a moderate pace 10-60 minutes, several times a week, “…behaved with robust mental health in stress tests.” The chapter goes on to cite many other studies that all seem to suggest that regular exercise may help people’s mental well-being.

This makes sense to me. If you workout many times a week, you’re practicing feeling good. After a while, that hard work starts to pay off in other ways. You stop getting sick as often. Your body gets stronger and you slim down. You find you can eat what you want without worrying about gaining weight. If you’re doing regular endurance activities, like distance running, I have found you will gain even more. A regular meditation practice. Focus. Dealing with hardships better. Learning to recognize slow, steady progress. You become better at enduring.

Getting this fitness feedback loop started is the hard part. We have so many things in our society working against us getting fit. It’s exactly the opposite of our early ancestor’s situation. We have access to cheap and easy calories (that evolution drives us to consume), long time commitments to non-physical work, distracting sedentary entertainment, and long commutes.

I believe that if you’re going to really try to become fit, you need to begin with something that is intense enough to trigger the runner’s high. Leverage your evolution to get the feedback loop going! Go for a run, take a Crossfit or Bikram yoga class, row on an erg, hard, for forty minutes. Repeat. Build it up from there. Take it farther. Do it longer. Focus on endurance. Remember, we were built for it.


Jeremy enjoys running the trails around the Upper Connecticut River Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont and is currently training to compete in Madathlete Emerald Necklace 3 Day Stage Race in August of 2014.

Thank you Amos Esty for providing feedback on a draft of this piece.