My uncle Alan was in World War II and one day he asked me, ‘Mark, why do you think the Armed Forces train their soldiers to be fit?’
I shrugged. ‘To fight. To endure hard slogs. To carry huge backpacks around.’
He nodded. ‘Yes, that’s important, but there is one other reason: if a soldier feels strong and fit he starts to feel invincible.’
‘But no soldier would think he was invincible, surely?’ I said. ‘He would know that bullets could kill him.’
‘Yes, he would know that,’ my uncle said patiently, ‘but on some level he would feel invincible. That’s important when you have to be brave. It could make the difference between being able to fight and being paralysed with fear.’
Uncle Alan died years ago but his words still ring true. Yes, feeling invincible would reduce anxiety.
I exercise regularly, and as I get fitter and stronger I feel just a tiny bit invincible. It’s not that I think I am invincible; it’s just a feeling. I feel less physically vulnerable.
Commonsense tells me that if I were beaten up by a gang of thugs, or hit by a car, I’d suffer the same injuries regardless of how fit and strong I might happen to be. But to me it feels as though I would fare better.
That would apply to most of us. If we feel stronger and fitter than we have previously, we also acquire a little bit of that ‘invincibility’ feeling, even though commonsense says otherwise.
It’s not about becoming physically resilient, it’s about feeling physically resilient, because that feeling of ‘invincibility’ adds to our core happiness.
The happiness experts say exercise can make us happy. They are right, for the wrong reasons. Exercise produces endorphins and encephalins, the happy hormones, that make us feel good. But those chemicals are temporary; they don’t add to our core happiness.
‘The naturally produced brain chemicals, called the endorphins and encephalins, are released in times of stress. They can make a mangled accident victim as serene as a Buddhist monk, and they can also make an athlete feel great after an extremely vigorous workout. The latter effect is sometimes referred to as the ‘runner’s high’, and the post-exercise surge in endorphins helps to explain why many exercisers seem to become addicted to their sport. Their workouts become ‘fixes’ which mask the pain of everyday living, and even injuries or illnesses can’t stop the training process because the athlete is relentlessly searching for endorphin-induced mood elevations.’
From the Peak Performance website.
Not everyone gets endorphins. It depends on your genes. Some people exercise and feel good afterwards while others, like me, feel nothing but exhaustion. (Though I still exercise.)
Exercise can also help us feel invincible. Of course, we can’t actually be invincible, but by exercising regularly we can get a taste of that feeling of invincibility. We only need to feel a little stronger and fitter than we did the week before. That’s why Mr Skinny, who gained a little muscle mass in a month, will feel more powerful than Mr Bodybuilder, who lost a little muscle mass in a month.
Hard to believe?
Obviously, if Mr Skinny compares himself with Mr Bodybuilder he won’t think, or feel, powerful. But most of the time we compare our muscles with the muscles we have had in the past. That makes the difference. Rationally we might realise we are not powerful, but if we are fitter and stronger than we were last week, then on an emotional level we will feel powerful.
Still hard to believe?
Consider: our mind has only ever had one body to live in, so it only has that one body with which to make a comparison. It knows when the body is stronger, or weaker, and that’s how it gauges its power. That’s the only way it can. That’s why a child can feel powerful: the child’s body is the only source its mind has. Dress that little body up in a Superman costume and the mind goes wild.
Still hard to believe?
Remember a time when you felt your fittest and strongest? Even though you were not nearly as powerful as Mr or Mrs Universe, didn’t you feel powerful?
An important key to feeling resilient is to feel powerful. Even better, to feel invincible. Unless you’re a media mogul, or Dr Evil into world domination, a good way to feel powerful is to get physically fitter and stronger. And the best way to do that is to exercise.
It’s not about getting the endorphins – if you get them that’s a bonus – it’s about feeling fitter and stronger than you have felt in the recent past. With that feeling comes confidence, and a feeling of resilience.
Q. ‘So, if I exercise and manage to do just one push-up, after being unable to do any, I’m going to feel more powerful, and as a result, feel happier?’
That’s the theory! Notice that I am not suggesting that you become stronger and fitter to make you more powerful; it’s to make you feel more powerful. That’s why even the puny can benefit.
Q. ‘If we can feel more confident by becoming fitter, how would we feel if we learnt self-defence?’
Q. ‘If Mr Bodybuilder were beaten up would he lose his feeling of power, even though he is still physically powerful? Would he lose his belief that he can handle whatever happens?’
I believe so. That supports my claim. It’s not how powerful we are that is important, it’s how powerful we feel.
‘Could he get that feeling back?’
Q. ‘Improving your health and fitness takes a long time.’
If it takes you ten years of exercising a few times a week to put on a few more kilos of muscle, it means for those ten years you have been feeling just a little more powerful than the weeks before. You have gained power in tiny increments. For those ten years you have given yourself a key to resilience.
‘Like if we won a small amount of money each week, instead of one big lottery win? Our happiness will be sustained?’
Correct! Except that money gives you power in the outside world, which isn’t as satisfying as the power we can feel within ourselves. Having a strong inner authority is invaluable.
Q. ‘How much happiness are we talking about? How much difference will getting fit make? Is it worth the trouble?’
Everything you do to lower your capacity to become anxious makes a small contribution, but combined they make a huge difference. I can’t say the time and trouble you take to exercise will be worth it, because it depends on what you would otherwise be doing with your time. But this key has a bonus: it will boost your health and confidence.
If you choose to exercise:
Getting started can be our biggest problem. Once we are in the habit it is easy to keep going. Try:
(i) To place pressure on yourself, declare to everyone that you’re going to start exercising. Name the dates and times. Perhaps even make a bet of some sort.
(ii) You might try to find someone to exercise with you. Commit to each other. Make damned sure it won’t be you to be the first to give up exercising. Get the other person to make the same vow.
(iii) If you can afford them, try gym or martial arts classes. Their specific times force us to arrange our life around them and build a routine. Plus, we are more likely to work hard in a gym class, and less likely to finish early. There might also be a social element that can, after time, be rewarding.
(Don’t sign up long-term until you have made your exercise a firm habit.)
(iv) Start small. Commit to five minutes a day.
(v) Don’t make exceptions. Even if you feel ‘off colour’ go. Even if it’s raining, go. You can reduce your weights or run a little slower if need be. But go.
(vi) Ask someone to support you, to keep you from making exceptions. Give that person permission to do what it takes to get you to exercise.
(vii) Don’t wait for circumstances to be perfect. They will never be perfect.
Avoid injury by using the correct techniques. Using the right technique might make it harder to do the exercise, and might even feel wrong, but the right muscles will be working and your body will benefit. After a while the correct technique will feel right.
Regularly have your technique checked, to ensure you are not developing bad habits.
Is your body well? If you have doubts about your health or your ability to exercise, check your plan to exercise with a doctor before you begin.
Don’t buy a gym membership until your visits to the gym have become a habit. When you continue to exercise because you don’t want to lose the benefits you have so painstakingly gained, that’s the time to get the long-term membership.
When you begin exercising make a video diary of yourself. Six months later make another. And so on. In a few years you can reward and encourage yourself by making comparisons.
You might also want to log the weights you use, and the number of repetitions, weekly. Or the kilometres you run. You will be rewarded with written hard evidence of your improvements, and be encouraged to keep going.
Don’t just go through the motions. Try hard. You will improve at a greater rate when you push yourself, because it’s the last few ‘impossible’ ones that make the biggest difference. In gym classes failure is expected. If you meet the requirements without failing (or without almost failing) it means your weights aren’t heavy enough, or you aren’t working hard enough. Exhaust yourself.
‘I don’t want to be exhausted. I have things to do afterwards.’
When you become fit you will recover quickly.
Q. ‘I can’t afford the money to go to a gym.’
Join a sporting club. Or create two teams and organise a regular soccer game in a park. Find a sport you enjoy and do what is required to play it.
Do twenty pushups in a television ad break. Think of something that suits you!
Q. ‘I like playing sport but I’m no good at it.’
There are many people like you. Find those people and organise something. Or join the club and let the club deal with how bad at the sport you are. Make it their problem, not yours.