When I was a teenager I loved to run. We lived on the edge of town, not far from where the road turned from bitumen to gravel. Every afternoon I’d head for the gravel, and often I’d close my eyes as I ran, just to listen to the sound of my feet crunching, the sound of my own breath, sometimes the sound of my heartbeat.
I ran for physical fitness, in part. But mainly I ran because it made me feel good mentally, because it calmed my mind.
On days when I was particularly anxious, or even angry, I’d sprint the section between where the bitumen ended and the end of the street. While I caught my breath after those sprints, I’d stretch my legs on top of the white wooden reflector poles, gaze out over the paddocks and feel the tension — the anger, the anxiety — loosen and drop away.
I was one of those angry teens. I was angry for reasons I didn’t understand, prone to outbursts where things were yelled, doors were slammed and where I lashed out at my family. Running calmed me. I didn’t know how it worked, all I knew was that it did. I knew that when I got home I’d be better equipped to do my homework or study, less likely to blow up at the antics of my younger brothers.
My relationship with anger is still one of the strongest driving forces in my life. Anger motivates me to do things, to write things. Expressed in a helpful way, anger can carry passion and fascination, so I don’t think of it as a bad thing. But it can also become a (rather terrifying) hindrance too — it can cloud my judgement, it can leave me full of energy but with no idea where to direct it, rendering it and me effectively useless. None of this is particularly conducive to working or writing or living well.
Anger is why I’ve always been a highly active person; exercise helps me to turn anger into something useful.
Over the last couple of decades, scientific research has continually found connections between how we use our bodies and how our brains work. And highly volatile teenage me was onto something: exercise is indeed an effective mood regulator, especially in people who are long-term exercisers. I like to think of moving my body as a way of giving expression to whatever it is that I’m feeling — those things that maybe I can’t find the words for. This has always been my theory about why exercise works as a mood regulator for me.
Writing too, obviously, is a valid form of expression — and it’s often used by professionals as a therapeutic tool. I sometimes use it that way too. But if I want to write something that other people might read, very rarely do I want it to be the kind of raw expression that exercise is for me. In the same way as therapeutic writing allows people to try out thoughts and feelings, exercise gives me an opportunity to test out those things in myself so that they’re out of the way — or perhaps clearer in my mind — when I come to really write.
But what is it about exercise that clears the mental and/or emotional debris?
Researchers looking to mitigate the effects of ageing on the brain have found that moderate exercise helps the organ strengthen and grow. Aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (stretching and toning) exercise effect the brain in slightly different ways.
Aerobic exercise, like running or walking, encourages a process called neurogenesis, which is the growth of new neurons (the cells that are responsible for the electrochemical messages in the brain and the rest of the nervous system). This kind of exercise also encourages the growth and increased flexibility of the meaty infrastructure of the brain— the vessels and attached capillaries that carry blood and oxygen around your brain — in a process called vascular angiogenesis. More neurons and better blood flow in the brain seems to improve the ability to focus in the face of distractions; it improves planning, scheduling, working memory and the ability to switch effectively between tasks.
Anaerobic exercise — stretching after a run say, or strength training — appears to increase activity in the part of the brain that helps us to resolve conflict and to distinguish between confusing or disparate sources of stimulation. Best of all, these mental benefits are apparent in different age groups and across different fitness levels. The trick appears to be the word ‘moderate’, which, in practice, could mean a different level of intensity for every individual. Interestingly, physical exercise seems to be more effective than cognitive exercises for improving brain health and cognitive function. (You can read here in more detail about the more invasive studies done on exercise and brain function in rats.)
In his collection of essays called What I talk about when I talk about running, novelist Haruki Murakami says that running, for him, is a kind of therapy for both body and mind. “Especially for someone in my line of work,” he writes, “solitude is, more or less, an inevitable circumstance. Sometimes, however, this sense of isolation, like acid spilling out of a bottle, can unconsciously eat away at a person’s heart and dissolve it…and that’s why I’ve had to constantly keep my body in motion, in some cases pushing myself to the limit, in order to heal the loneliness I feel inside and to put it in perspective.”
This is a slightly different take on my idea of exercise as a way of clearing the mental debris so I can write: for Murakami, it’s a way of clearing the mental debris created by writing. He hints at something darker here. Even though I seek it out, and even though it’s a necessary part of writing, being alone with my thoughts is not always the best thing for my overall health. At times, being ‘reflective’ tips over into just thinking too much and it’s a perilous place to be. Ultimately, it’s not good for my writing either.
I like Murakami’s acid analogy. Thoughts and emotions, like a bottle of acid, are useful when applied appropriately, but destructive (and painful!) when they’re applied inappropriately. Thoughts and emotions can be hugely distracting for me if they’re very strong or unmediated. If I’m really angry or sad or even blissfully happy, I find it incredibly difficult to focus enough be a reasonable human being, let alone to put words on a page in a way that makes any kind of sense.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that I’d prefer to be without emotion, or that anyone should be. Anger, remember, is for me an excellent motivator. It’s just that writing is hard work, and mental or emotional overload is a very real occupational hazard. It makes sense to me that writers — like people in other professions — need both the skills to actually do the work and the skills to cope with the conditions (mental, physical, emotional) they find themselves in as a result of doing this work. That exercise both improves the overall health of the brain and cognitive functions — like focus — that are so important to my writing process, and helps me clear out the frustration and/or loneliness that comes with too much time thinking, makes me sure of its value as part of that writing process.
Writer and philosopher Damon Young also writes about how exercise can create a sense of power in the person doing it. “Power,” he writes, “is visceral: the sense that one’s arms are stronger, balance nimbler, reflexes faster, lungs clearer. It is an inner feeling of augmented potency, born of dogged, skillful striving.” If this is true, then physical fitness might also have all sorts of social and political implications of the kind Stephanie H. Convery writes about here: “The practice of personal physical discipline doesn’t restrict your personal power,” she writes, “or your physical and mental strength and ability; it increases it. It is through that discipline that you gain greater agency.” For all sorts of reasons, greater agency is something of great use for a writer. Murakami also says that for him running a marathon and writing a novel are very similar. They both require stamina, commitment. Surely practise at one will help the other.
I no longer run (and I don’t want this post to be an ode to running; more to exercise in general), but I am very active. Obviously, given my day job, I do yoga, but I also walk a lot. I sometimes find that writing requires physical activity that’s extra to what I might normally do for any other reason. Writing this piece, for example, I found I needed to walk myself out of a lot of frustrating structural loops.
In the park near to my house, the paths are laid with gravel very similar to the dirt road I used to jog on as a teen. There are no paddocks for me to gaze out over, brooding, but there is that crunch as I walk. I’m aware of my breath, of the soreness in my upper back and the stiffness in my limbs after sitting for most of the day. But as I walk my body loosens, just a little, and my breath becomes more fluid. So too does my thinking.
By the time I get home I’ve got some answers — not all, but some, and that’s a start.
Sophie writes essays — usually about food, environment, health and wellbeing — and occasionally short fiction. She’s also a yoga teacher. Sophie’s been published in a variety of literary journals, including the EWF’s annual publication, The Emerging Writer, and she blogs at sophielangley.com. She’s currently working on a collection of essays about food culture.