Exercise Zen

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When I’m in this state everything is pure, vividly clear. I’m in a cocoon of concentration. And if I can put myself into that cocoon, I’m invincible. . . . I’m living fully in the present. I’m absolutely engaged, involved in what I’m doing. . . . It comes and it goes, and the pure fact that you are out on the first tee of a tournament and say, «I must concentrate today,» is no good. It won’t work.

Tony Jacklin 

For a good proportion of us humans, our body is nothing more than a way of getting the brain from A to B. We have become a brain transporter tool – a way of moving the “ego” around. Although this does not necessarily strike everybody as problematic, It very well can be.

It can limit our happiness.


Not because you have to have a magazine cover body and put down miles on the treadmill to be happy.

I do not wish to be considered as one of those hyperactive, overly positive, too good looking individuals, often observed at any local gym, that truly believe they can change the world by getting everybody to exercise more and eating healthy. I don’t want everybody to be fit or thin – what a horrible thought and what a depressingly boring world it would be.

But, I would like people to be able to get the information they want and need so that they can do what they want with their bodies and their lives.

The reason why the body becoming a brain carrying tool can be problematic, is because the mind and the body are impossible to differentiate. It is problematic to talk of them as two separate things as it is equally problematic to consider them to be one (René Decartes is much to blame for our dualistic view of ourselves).

Just as our thoughts and feelings affect the functions of our body and the bodily milieu, our body greatly affects our thoughts, feelings and personality.

Our oversized human brain and the concomitant great ability to imagine situations, to plan ahead and to consider multiple situations and outcomes can be a curse. For example, I can sit in quiet surroundings with a body at rest and still have an overactive mind. Because I can picture possible future outcomes, I can stress myself silly and sick while being totally at rest. Adrenaline and cortisol can go up.  My heart is beating faster and stronger, I start sweating and breathing heavily, all while sitting perfectly still.

Most tragic of all is that I can make my body respond like this by thinking of things to come that most likely will never happen. Let’s face it, as humans we are great at considering multiple future situations, but not necessarily any better at predicting the actual future to be. How often does a situation turn out to be exactly how you pictured it would be?

This stress can gradually destroy my body from the inside out. My cells function more poorly and are broken down to a greater degree. Stress is a catabolic state. While sitting perfectly still and wrenching my mind I am effectively weakening my own body.

We do not need to have a higher than normal heart rate to be stressed. Feeling bad is also stress. Depression seems to be as deteriorating as anxiety. Over time, feeling bad can reduce a body to ruins.

As negative thought patterns is detrimental to the body, a poor physical health and poorly functioning body can be detrimental to the mind. Luckily for us, both the body and the mind are ours to mold. Neither is unchangeable.

There are many reasons why being physically active can improve our mental health and well being. The secreting of hormones that increase our well being is one effect. A more effective vasculature, improved transportation potential and even the forming of new cells are other. There is also an anthropologic aspect worth considering. As humans, our bodies are made for (have involved into) activity and unless the body are given the stimuli it is made for, we will feel unfulfilled.

Last but not least, physical activity or exercise can give our minds much needed rest. Exercise is distraction for the mind.

While it is easy to fill the mind with multiple thoughts and feelings at rest, it is much harder to concentrate on multiple things while being active.

One of the greatest ways of giving the mind a rest is by giving the body the opposite. Once you step on a treadmill, jump on bike, go for a run/swim/walk or whatever, the body takes over. While intensity is gradually increasing, while the muscles work harder and harder, while you sweat more and the heart beats faster, there is no longer room for thoughts and feelings.

The body forces the mind to focus on one thing. The head is no longer filled with thoughts about annoying colleagues, what to eat for dinner, how to get a job, how to pay the loan or what to do with your life. The exercise forces the mind to let go of all of this and to simply focus.

Although I admittedly spend most of my time sitting on my ass, I do go out for the occasional exercise. In particular, I like jumping. I like landing too, but not nearly as much as I like jumping.

The wonderful thing about jumping is that it freaks the hell out my mind. The higher the fall and the bigger the challenge, the less my mind is involved. It is uninvolved not because of panic or fear, but because there is no room for thoughts. A difficult physical situation requires my body to do what it does best. To react to stimuli and to adjust quickly. There is no time for thinking.

Photo: Jon Lucas 

This feeling is independent of activity type. Some people report that they get lost in the activity during a spinning class. With pounding hypnotic music, heart racing and lungs screaming they let the body take over and they become the cycling. You can lose your self in your Grok workout or when going for a quick walk.

A Japanese Zen Buddhist would probably call this “Mushin”- simply translated; “no mind.” A sport psychologist would probably call it flow or possibly runners high.

No matter the name it is given, giving the mind a break while making the body a little more fit is a wonderful experience – an experience in which, even for just a second, the line between the body and the activity is eliminated. Making a distinction between myself and the activity no longer make any sense. In this state I am the jump.

In fact, some of my most peaceful moments are in situations where my heart is racing and my muscles aching.

If one puts his mind in the action of his opponent’s body, his mind will be taken by the action of his opponent’s body.
If he puts his mind in his opponent’s sword, his mind will be taken by that sword.
If he puts his mind in thoughts of his opponent’s intention to strike him, his mind will be taken by thoughts of his opponent’s intention to strike him.
If he puts his mind in his own sword, his mind will be taken by his own sword.
If he puts his mind in his own intention of not being struck, his mind will be taken by his intention of not being struck.
If he puts his mind in the other man’s stance, his mind will be taken by the other man’s stance.
What this means is that there is no place to put the mind.

Takuan Soho

7 kommentarer

  1. Kommenterer på norsk.

    Sykt interessant Pål, forklarer så bra at dette blir logikk i mitt hodet.

    Men for å koble ut hodet skikkelig innenfor løping må du ha en høy hjertefrekvens. Er du ikke enig? Poenget ditt i teksten heller kanskje mer mot å gi oss et innblikk og ikke gå i alt for detalj.

    Kristian Fredrik


  2. I love your blog. Carbohydrate-restricted nutrition/ketogenic diets and fitness, specifically strength-training, is my research passion (althought I do law for a living!). On September 16, 2010, I just passed my 18-month mark on a pure Zero Carb diet. I am 5'4″, 104lbs. and 15% bodyfat. I strength train and do cardio and eat the Warrior Diet style. I have tons of energy on Zero Carb, eat only whole animal foods (no processed meats, etc.) and have never had better health or body composition!



  3. Thank you so much Katelyn!

    So good to hear of your progress. There are lots of people out there who would say what you are doing with combining strength training and low carb, is impossible. Keep proving them wrong.


  4. Thanks! Please keep posting research about ketogenic/very low carb diets and strength training and health. I'm always posting your articles on Facebook.



  5. HI

    My name is Gonçalo and I'm from Portugal.

    I really like your blog so that's why I thought about asking you a question.

    I have struggled with strong chronic anxiety and some depression for a long time. I'm 23.

    I would like to ask you if you have any suggestion about what I can do to to try to understand if these syntoms have roots in nutritional deficiencies, infections, inflammation, etc. I have
    some history of trauma but maybe some of this is aggravating the problem?

    Are there some probable causes? Any tests I shoud do? cost-effective Solutions?

    Thanks so much

    Warmest wishes



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