Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.
There’s a certain type of mythologized go-getter, one I’ve never met, who sleeps four hours a night and takes world-changing phone calls while doing sit-ups. When characterized in movies, they have amazing running posture. They sprint sleekly on a treadmill like lionesses, staring intently at the TV, like it’s prey. The TV is invariably tuned to the news, probably international. This person seems to be running right at the screen like she’s going to burst through it. The world is grave and she’s training herself for it. I’ve never seen The West Wing, but I assume this happens several times. It definitely happens in Legally Blonde, when Elle Woods gets serious about the funny business of law. This go-getter is in shape, informed, and preparing to make her impact.
Would that it were me. When my exercise shifted from dippy aerobic classes to extensive house puttering, I thought to use this time to make a dent on absorbing current affairs. I’d listen to NPR and podcasts, with my peaceful floor routine on silent. I thought I’d clear my mind with the power of exercise to make space for the world to come in.
It feels like there’s never been more news than there is right now. And this week, like the weeks before it, the news has been horrible. A smattering of lines from my trusted shows: “How did things get so bad?” “It all seems quite scrambled and I wonder what you make of that?” “Well, it’s worse than that.” And lying on the ground panting, the jumping-jack tightness in my chest became indistinguishable from the frightened, sad tightness in my chest. Which is it? I’d think, hand pressing on my heart.
I learn that, probably, it’s a bad mix of both. “Exercise is really good for stress relief, because it tones the stressors,” says Jennifer Heisz, a cognitive psychologist and professor of kinesiology at McMaster University, referring to the way that exercise challenges the body in a controlled setting. Making your body exercise — breathing hard and getting your blood pumping — is like simulating a stressful environment, that you’d have to fight-or-flight your way out of. Heisz says that the way exercise makes your stress system more resilient is actually similar to lifting a weight up and down. It repeatedly activates and deactivates the stress system in a safe way, which is why after you’re done with stressing it out, your mood can lift.
“But there’s only one stress system for physical stress and psychological stress,” Heisz explains. “If you have baseline chronic psychological stress, then exercise feels harder. If you’re listening to a stressful newscast, stress will compound. It’s an additive thing. It can be counterproductive.” Basically: Know that we only have one area to process stress, so if you bombard it on both sides, it’s going to reach its limit fast.
Sean McCann, the senior sport psychologist for the United States Olympic Committee, tells me that for many of the Olympians he’s working with, he’s suggested limiting their news diet. “I think there’s a generational thing,” he says. “So many of the athletes I work with are podcast listeners as they exercise. The older folks, it was mostly music.” Now that news podcasts are “so depressing and terrifying,” McCann’s recommending other options. Or maybe an old-school approach, like music of the geezers. “I’ve been listening to the Talking Heads a lot,” he says.
“But if your podcast is your indulgence, if it gets you out the door” you don’t have to ditch it, McCann says. If distraction feels good, then it feels good. He tells me about someone training for marathons with six-minute miles reading bouncy gossip magazines (Cosmopolitan, People) on the treadmill. “Don’t be a monk and a purist, and then not exercise because it’s boring and you don’t like it.”
But distractions, much like fancy kitchen contraptions, could only seem to make things easier, while actually making things way more complicated. Patrick O’Connor, with the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Georgia, studies how exercise intersects with mental health as well as cognition (like executive function and sustained attention). O’Connor tells me that studies show that distracted workouts hamper the nice mental-health side effects. “The anxiety-reducing benefits of 20 minutes of moderate-intensity cycling were blocked when the participants did cognitive work while exercising,” he tells me. Unfortunately, we learn once again that when we try to have it all, we don’t get to keep anything good.
Everything does feel like it’s coming from all sides now, threats are airborne and stewing internally. And fitness, while it’s still in a world electric with dangers, can keep the doldrums and the panics at bay. I’ve stopped aiming my modest set of push-ups and stair runs at the news. If it’s in my control for once, I can activate just one stress at a time. If you’re spinning up your muscles, this could be the time to let your sweet little mind have a break. Exercise is a type of whirring stress that can calm things down. Like a baby on a washing machine, just let your mind hang out at the top of the buzzing, and finally it may be able to get a little rest.