I’ve been reflecting alot about my third mega-mileage year in a row, since I’m seeming to continue a daily amount of bicycling and walking. 5,143 Miles in 2018: 4,554 Biking + 589 Walking. Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good for A Dude! I haven’t added or subtracted any New Year’s Resolutions, so I’m wondering if it’s still healthy for me. Especially since I’m generally sleep-deprived and tired if not downright exhausted. Also having a regular if not daily or more encounter with chocolately goodness going into my grocery hole. Then I saw a National Geographic article about addiction and this post about exercise addiction from follower A Better Man 21. It’s as good a topic as any so I’m going to address it, hopefully briefly.
You Can Overdo Anything, Even if It’s Good for You
I won’t repeat all the science from the articles and Betterman’s links to make the point that yes, healthy habits can be overdone. “The Addicted Brain,” (Nat Geo, Sep 2017), details how the human brain’s reward and pleasure centers may get hijacked by stimuli (drugs, alchohol, gambling, internet gaming, etc.), which can lead to addiction. It’s a complex organism and the mechanisms of how addiction works require much more study, but there is promise in new approaches and treatment.
“Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing. It’s characterized by… compulsive repetition of an activity despite life-damaging consequences…. many scientists accept the once heretical idea that addiction is possible without drugs.”
–Former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy
How this relates to exercise is interesting. Most people have heard of runner’s high, which is a natural phenomenon once thought to be endorphins (a morphine-like substance) being released into the bloodstream and provide feelings of well-being. Newer thought is that other neurotransmitters like dopamine (the key ingredient in drug addiction), serotonin and norepinephrine are involved. (from Runner’s High: Is It Real? on WebMD). It’s harmless unless taken to extremes to experience it. But what about when you constantly are working out, thinking about it, and recovering from t to the detriment of your health, social life and responsibilities?
Consider this quote from a “Yes, You Can Get Addicted to Exercise” in a Psychology Today blog post from a few years back:
“Any workout regimen that infringes on the rest of your life, impairs your ability to be present and enjoy non-exercise related endeavors, and keeps you cycling in and out of the orthopedist’s and physical therapist’s office is not good for you.”
The blog mentions seven behaviors that taken together suggest addiction: Tolerance, Withdrawal, Intention Effect (doing more than planned), Lack of Control, Time, Reductions in Other Activities, Continuance (doing more despite negative outcomes). I can relate to some of these a little, but also don’t think I fit into most of them or enough to diagnose an exercise addiction. I work my butt off on the bike (my walking and yoga are fairly gentle practices by comparison) but I take plenty of time off. As of late I have been commuting to work and doing errands every day for a month. But I find it much easier to go on short five-mile rides as opposed to long 30, 40, 50 or more miles at once.
Sugar: As Bad As Cocaine
And then there’s the sugar-laden foods frequently pushed on amateur and professional athletes alike. I can’t count the times other bike riders have said I should eat simple carbs to “prevent my muscles from burning out.” Again from the Nat Geo article:
“Nicole Avena, a neuroscientist… has shown that rats will keep gobbling sugar if you let them, and they develop tolerance, craving, and withdrawal, just (like) cocaine… high-fat foods and highly processed foods such as refined flour may be as problematic as sugar. That’s a major reason why people struggle with obesity.”
This might explain my issue in two ways since I gave up flour for all of 2018, and lately began craving and eating alot of candy. It’s not a moral failing, bad will power, or some major character flaw. It’s neurochemistry. Sugar is super-addictive, hella-tasty, cheap and plentiful, and it gets you high (legally)! The article mentions a survey of 384 adults and that “92% reported a persistent desire to eat certain foods and repeated unsuccessful attempts to stop (are) two hallmarks of addiction.”
Despite what I experienced as a major dietary sacrifice — not eating processed flour for a whole year — I have not experienced any significant, ongoing weight loss or other increase in physical health from eschewing bread and the like. Even considering the replacement of a small part of the processed grain that I used to eat with candy bars doesn’t really explain it. Regardless, I definitely experience a very strong urge to eat things with sugar in them. And moreso while on and after being on the bicycle.
How to Break the Cycle? Just Sit There.
Sorry, pun intended. If cycling or any sort of feel-good activity can be addictive, and so can food, how is anyone to resist? The answer may lie in Buddhism: “… there’s growing evidence that mindfulness can counter the dopamine flood of contemporary life,” says the Nat Geo piece. That’s because meditation gets you to take a step back and observe the craving (“the root of all suffering” — along with its cousin, aversion) and try to “ride out the wave of intense desire.” This has an effect on the part of the brain that can lead to obsessing over things. Like “Where’s the next convenience store that has Junior Mints, dammit!”
I have had several experiences with meditation. I tried it one summer at a yoga retreat, as well as have done specific training in Vipassana and Insight Meditation, and even sat for Quaker Meeting for a time. While meditating, I did experience a greater sense of remove from the sort of patterns of thought that lead to attachment. Whether it’s to expand a narrowly-held personal view of one’s self, other people or how the world “should be,” or just calm the mind, sitting on a cushion (or chair or bed), breathing calmly and rhythmically, and attempting over and over to not react emotionally to thoughts can in fact create a certain remove.
That distance from the thought — “Man, I really want a candy bar!” — and the action of eating candy — may be enough to reduce the habit. So that’s something I would like to explore again, even though past attempts have not worked wonders as I’d hoped. And maybe I can apply that to biking and eating. The next time I feel that I “should” go out on a long ride to make my mileage goal, perhaps I will just let it go and take a nap. Or instead of having candy, maybe I can eat an apple with almond butter and cinnamon on it. I’ll feel better, and I’ll feel better for doing it, too. Easier said than done. But with some knowledge of brain stuff, perhaps we can all do a little better this year.
“Moderation in all things, especially moderation.”
Can you relate to this topic, and if so, how?
What has worked for you to reduce cravings and addictions, to sugar, exercise, or something else?
What are your goals and resolutions for 2019, and are they healthy and realistic?
Let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading.
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