From the very first time I stepped up on a treadmill and sweated out my first half mile of uninterrupted but extremely labored jogging, I have known the physical benefits of regular exercise. After only six months of gym work I had already dropped 10lbs and was able to run more than a mile without a break. Within a year I was operating at a moderately healthy weight and able to run a 5K in a nine minute mile pace. Physically, I was reaping the kind of benefits I had only dreamed of a couple of years previously. In my late thirties, with the middle aged spread starting to set in, I was at a critical point in my life and regular exercise was keeping me on the fit and healthy path that so many others my age had veered off and would never see again.
What I never reckoned on was the mental benefits of exercise and running.
The first thing I noticed was an improvement in my confidence. The motivation for working out was because I felt myself slipping down that middle aged slope, and at the time I wasn’t feel good about myself. I would look in the mirror and, seeing my lumpy reflection, wonder where it all went wrong. This had a profound effect on my confidence and would often result in my avoiding specific social situations. Running changed all that. Within a few months of starting, the weight was coming off and I was feeling a whole lot better about myself. From there it just snowballed. Every time the scale dropped another notch my confidence level would go up. I began to get my mojo back, to enjoy life a little more and venture out into the world more often. I chalk up my decision to stop seeking out mutually destructive relationships and look for something a little more meaningful to my improved self-image. It’s apparent to me at least that, without the change in self-perception, I never would have met my wife and would have missed out on the best thing to ever happen to me.
The other area where running has had a profound impact on my life is in helping to condition my mind by introducing the same principals as meditation. For most of my adult life I frowned upon the notion of meditation – scorning it as an activity for the hippy tree-hugger types. I just couldn’t take the time out of my (supposedly) busy day to sit quietly, reflect, focus on breathing, and purge my mind of the detritus of the day. In hindsight, it’s an activity I wish I had taken up a lot sooner.
When I’m out running of cycling, the one thing I focus on more than anything else is my breathing. Maintaining a natural rhythm to my breathing helps to keep the air moving and muscles supplied with oxygen rich blood. It also helps me clear my mind of everything else to the point that I enter this state of being where it’s just me, the road, and the air around me in perfect harmony.
How does this help me outside of running? Having never meditated before, I had no idea that I could even clear my mind of all the stuff flying around in there. Now that I know I can, I use running as a means of practicing the art of mind cleaning and then apply those techniques to times away from running when there’s so much going on that it’s hard to focus on a specific task. That becomes a very useful skill in times of crisis or when faced with important deadlines.
In the past I have remarked about the need for an on/off switch on my brain, so that every now and again I can enjoy some downtime. I firmly believe that meditation through running or another form of physical activity is the on/off switch I’ve been looking for!