More than any of the other usual suspects (apathy, melancholy, irritability etc) I know when I’m truly out of sorts because I stop exercising.
This is confronting for a number of reasons, not least because I have a website devoted to ‘super fitness’, whatever the heck that actually means. [I’ve been whittling down a definition of what I consider to be super-fitness but that’s not the purpose of this post.]
But, aside from being at odds with the nature of this site and therefore possibly rendering me a complete and utter fraud, not being inclined to exercise is indicative of a far more serious malaise. You see, part of the reason for all of the exercise is to keep myself strong and robust, mentally and physically. I also know that the oft-trotted out mantra that physical exercise is the best cure for mental struggles.
So if I am struggling or highly anxious, then I have the cure in my back pocket – just go and workout, or more precisely, move…in whatever form that takes.
And yet it isn’t always so straightforward. Sometimes you simply can’t actually move from the couch or get yourself outside. What do you do then?
Well, a little trail and error has enabled me to dial in some go-to workouts that require minimal thought or planning, exactly what you need when even getting dressed feels like a major challenge.
1. Join A HIIT Class
What did we ever do without HIIT classes? Erm, circuit training is what. It just has a new name now and some more involved exercises.
HIIT classes are great because they’re short, intense, require no thinking whatsoever, and usually have a highly favourable male to female ratio which, call me a raging Trumpian misoginist, is probably a great cure for a malady.
Because gyms like F45 are so popular, there’s probably a HIIT class going on within 50m of your building this lunchtime. It could be any form of high intensity training, though – the goal is to simply jolt your body (and with it, your mind) out of a hole.
2. Go For A Run Somewhere Scenic
An old colleague of mine who practised in the art of NLP told me that it’s impossible to feel depressed if you’re looking up at the sky.
He was a quirky character (the kind who makes a welcome change from the nondescript corporate drones you’re apt to come across in a nondescript corporate job) and I have no idea if this is true, but the combination of busting your lungs whilst looking at beautiful scenery does seem to release a double-dose of lovely endorphins.
The not-so mythical runner’s high should also kick-in around mile 8 to further banish any maudlin thoughts.
3. Do Your Own Go-To / Signature Workout
I’m a massive advocate of having a ‘backpack’ workout tucked away in your, erm, backpack, that you can roll out in times of crisis, something that never lets you down and yet still delivers in terms of performance.
When your head isn’t in the right spot these workouts truly come into their own because they deliver everything you need with you virtually on auto-pilot.
Mine looks like this:
Row 5 mins keeping stroke rate below 20 (aim for over 1,000m)
Bar hangs – 30 secs on / off x 4
Empty barbell (20kg) warm-up – 15 / 10 / 5 rep complex of hang power cleans, shoulder press, bicep curls
5 x 6-10 hang power cleans at 40 / 50 / 60kg
5 x 6-8 shoulder press at 40 / 50kg
10 mins ski-erg – 30 secs on / 30 secs off
Breaking it down: the row warms everything up and starts prepping my central nervous system that there might be some big things ahead.
The bar hangs are a tonic for my spine with the added bonus of building grip and forearm strength.
The empty barbell warm-up complex gets me moving under a bit of duress and gives the CNS another solid wake-up call.
The hang power cleans, even with an empty bar, are a good check-in for coordination across the whole body.
The presses get the shoulders nice and warm and the curls are purely for the pump (ignore any greasy looks you get for curling in the squat rack – it’s just a warm-up).
At the end of this warm-up, there should be a sheen of sweat building. If I’m feeling bold I might add 20 front squats or 25 stiff-legged deadlifts.
I’ve been in the gym around 12-15 minutes at this point.
Still in the squat rack, I move into hang power cleans with some weight. A couple of quick sets at 40kg, two at 50kg and one big one at 60kg.
Once these are done I strip the bar back and do my shoulder presses, starting with 40kg and inching up to 50kg.
I’m probably 25-30 mins into the workout and apart from the row and the bar hangs, everything has been done in the squat rack. I haven’t had to move around the gym or think too much about getting equipment.
To finish it’s 10 minutes of 30 secs work / rest intervals on either the ski-erg (nordic skiing simulator) or the rower, both of which are hideous.
And I’m out of there inside 45 minutes.
4. Go To A Yoga Class
There’s so much going for the yoga, that it gets an overwhelming YES for bolstering your mood without even succumbing to the base and obvious fact that you’re likely to be one of the only guys in the room.
If you’re a) a male, and b) work at desk for lengthy periods, then yoga should be made compulsory. Like a modern-day military service. This is because your male-ness has likely given you hamstrings tighter than a Parson’s pocket and being a desk-jockey has probably switched off your core and glutes ad nauseum.
Anything you can do to address just these two issues represents such a positive move for your body that you deserve the additional smug-points that you’ll get sauntering out of the class. Think of it like the bodily equivalent of the ‘Giver’s Glow’.
One ‘remedial’ workout per week, whether yoga or pilates, should form the foundation of your weekly training. However, sticking to this when you’re short on time and the call of the iron starts clinking makes it extremely tricky. Hang in there and think long term.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance and benefits that this can bring in today’s over-stimulated and cortisol & dopamine driven world.
If you’re still on the fence or even a naysayer, consider this: Tim Ferriss, himself no slouch in the high-achiever stakes, interviews success-unicorns for his podcast (that generates over 1m downloads per episode). Think guests like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Matt Mullenweg (creator of WordPress which powers around 25% of the world’s websites), David Blaine, Vince Vaughan, Tony Robbins, Charles Poliquin, Seth Godin (for my favourites check out this post that featured in Lifehacker Australia).
Of these guests (over 150-200 I’d guess), 80% have some kind of meditation or spiritual practise that they rely on. That’s some serious social proof, right there.
If you’re still not convince, check out the Headspace app which offers a free ’10 minutes a day for 10 days’ introductory program.
The bottom line is this. If you find yourself in a hole, then exercise is one of the quickest ways to change your state and, in changing your state, your mindset can (not always, but often) change with it.
There are no experts (that I’ve read) who say exercise isn’t closely aligned to mental robustness and, whilst it sounds fairly trite, the mantra that you’ll never feel worse after a workout than you do before is 100% true in my own experience.