As Simon and Garfunkel wrote in their song “I Am a Rock”:
A winter’s day
In a deep and dark
I am alone…
I am a rock
I am an island…
If you are following through on a New Year’s wellness resolution, those lines may describe how you are feeling as you continue to exercise into the deep and dark of winter. The glow of the holidays has faded and the Resolutionistas have disappeared from the gym, leaving only the truly committed. You may be feeling like you are facing an endless string of workouts with no end in sight.
You should take heart because you are exactly where you should be, doing exactly what you should be doing. Health and fitness is a journey, not a destination, and you must embrace the process. Exercise only works if it makes you uncomfortable because you are forcing the body to adapt to the demands of the exercise. The human body is mercilessly efficient. It only spends energy on what is necessary and seeks to maintain the status quo. If you don’t use a muscle, the body will not spend the energy to maintain it and the muscle will atrophy. If the body sees extra calories, it will bank them as fat in case of a future famine. If you don’t exercise, you will age, losing muscle mass and bone density and putting on fat. If you layer on the effects from the stress of being a lawyer, you will develop high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes and become more obese. Obesity will lead to additional health problems such as more heart disease, certain types of cancer, and even arthritis. See Herbst, Attorney Wellness in a Nutshell, N.Y. St. B. J. 16–19 (Aug. 2019), https://www.nysba.org/Journal/2019/Aug/Attorney_Wellness_in_a_Nutshell/.
Yet that same merciless efficiency enables the body to respond to physical demands by building strength and stamina to perform efficiently what it was evolutionarily designed to do. Our body was intended to travel long distances, sprint after prey, fight it, and then carve it up and carry it back to camp. While that is no longer how we shop for dinner, the same principles apply. If you walk or run, your body will improve its cardiovascular capacity so that you can walk or run more easily. Your heart and lungs will become more efficient in delivering oxygen and nutrients. If you lift weights and use your muscles, your body will burn calories and spend the energy to build new muscle and make denser bones to make you stronger. As a result, you will slow or reverse the effects of aging and store less fat. You will also release the effects of stress from being a lawyer and will reduce your chances of developing stress-related diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Id.
To enjoy these benefits, it is a simple question of physics. You have to put some energy (exercise) in to end the inertia and jumpstart your system so that your body will respond and spend its stored energy (fat) and make improvements. Putting in that initial energy and causing the body to adapt may be uncomfortable, but nature has come up with a remedy for that. As you exercise, your body will produce endorphins, which are chemically similar to opiates. You will also produce endocannabinoids, which are similar to the active ingredient in marijuana. These stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers and dull feelings of pain or fatigue. Exercise will also reduce your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, so you will feel less anxious and depressed. As a result, during exercise, you will feel a euphoric sense of wellbeing. Runners call this runners’ high. Devotees of weight training refer to this as pump, when they get a tight feeling as their muscles fill with blood. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie “Pumping Iron” famously likened the pump to having sex. If exercise feels like drugs and sex, why would you not want to work out?
The more you exercise, the more you will want to exercise. You will develop a general sense of wellbeing from being fit. You will just feel good. If you miss a session, you will start to feel stiff and edgy and your body will want to move. Your brain will tell you it misses getting high. Like a car that has been parked too long whose oil clots and battery dies, you will need to get your motor running.
In the deep and dark of January, stick with your fitness program and head towards the joy and beauty of Spring. Simon and Garfunkel concluded
I am a rock
I am an island
And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries.
With runners’ high and a good pump, you will feel no pain. You will be as strong as a rock and you will rock.
This blog was originally published on the New York State Bar Association website.