fitness

Book Club Week 2: The Joy of Movement, Chapter 2

Welcome to our virtual book club! You can read about the idea here.

You can buy the Joy of Movement here or from a local bookshop or your favourite online retailer.

What’s the plan? Christine, Catherine, and I are reading a chapter a week, for seven weeks and writing about it here. We did that for Nia Shank’s book The 100 Day Reclaim: Daily Readings to Make Health and Fitness as Empowering as it Should Be. And we liked it so much we’re doing it again. Read what our reviews looked like here.

What’s different this time? We’re inviting you to join us. Read along and put your contributions in the comments. It doesn’t need to be a lot. A few sentences, a few paragraphs, whatever you’re moved to write.

Chapter Two: Getting Hooked

Here’s our thoughts about Chapter Two “Getting Hooked” and we look forward to hearing what you thought about it in the comments section below.

Sam: Chapter One was about the runner’s high and I worried about the language of drugs. Sadly it follows along in Chapter Two with talk of exercise addiction. As you might imagine I don’t like that either. I’m going to try to not engage with that particular framework and make sense of the ideas in the chapter without it. Wish me luck!

I love the story with which the chapter begins. It’s about a study that required people who regularly exercised to give up exercising for 30 days. The problem was that the study couldn’t get off the ground because they had a very hard time finding people who would give up exercising for 30 days. That got me wondering? Would I do that? Obviously not just for the wonders of science and the pursuit of truth. They had to pay people and not just the usual amount they paid study participants. They had to pay people a lot more. During the the study participants complained about not sleeping well and generally enjoying life less.

I wonder, how much would they need to pay me/you to give up exercise for 30 days?

Later in the chapter McGonigal looks at the connection between exercise and pleasure. How does it work? For some exercise is an acquired pleasure. For others, it’s a matter of finding the right activity. For still others, coming to enjoy exercise follows from finding the exercise to which their bodies are suited. We also add meaning to exercise when we connect it to important life events or stages, such as the woman who took up exercise after leaving an abusive relationship. For her, exercise was associated with freedom, autonomy, and liberation.

A final theme of the chapter is the range in human responses to exercise, from those who claim to hate it (we’ve written a lot about that here) to those for whom it’s an all encompassing passion and pursuit. In summary, lots to like in this chapter but I am troubled by all the addiction talk.

Christine: Chapter 2, ‘Getting Hooked’ is an interesting exploration of how physical movement taps into our brain’s reward systems. She spends part of the chapter walking us through all kinds of comparisons that people have made between drug addiction and the desire to exercise, and shows us the ways that the two types of compulsions differ. Her main point in this chapter is to remind us that an internal drive to keep moving is tapping into our brain’s commitment to things that help us survive.

As you probably know, part of my goal in reading these books for Fit is a Feminist Issue is to figure out ways to work WITH my ADHD instead of against it in my goal to be more consistent with my exercise.

In this chapter, I found several discussions and pieces of information that support that goal.

It can take a while for exercise to ‘harness’ our brain’s reward system, and as she says ‘for many, exercise is an acquired pleasure.’

While it is tricky for everyone to do something that doesn’t give immediate reward, for those of us with ADHD, there is an added layer of difficulty. For me, that’s mostly because I have trouble seeing how my actions today will add up to a greater whole. However, the way McGonigal has structured her discussion of how the reward systems respond over time is very useful to me.

McGonigal’s discussion of how aerobics videos and calisthenics gave her the ‘thrill of physical competence’ and gave her access to her body’s ‘intelligence’ tied into my experience of Taekwondo.

Even after 10 years, I find TKD very difficult but very rewarding. I like the type of challenge it is and I like being able to remember the process of learning something that I am now confident in. This section gave me some very satisfying language for discussing my experiences and for seeing how the process of gaining my competence can help me elsewhere.

Exercise expands your capacity for pleasure.

I think last week’s post touched on this point but the discussion here was really useful to me. I appreciated (another) reminder to connect the good experiences that surround my exercise with the exercise itself.

Exercise can have a positive effect on depression and anxiety.

This isn’t news, of course, but her framing of the discussion resonated with me. I especially related to the joy she found in kickboxing because it mirrored my experience with TKD.

This line in particular sticks with me: “I was used to clenching my hands into worried fists but fists feel different when you’re throwing a punch.” When I read that, I actually said ‘Hell yeah, they do.’ aloud. There is a real boost of personal power that comes from turning that sort of habitual action into a controlled and purposeful one.

She says that she thinks that the brain can sense that your exercise is creating wiring for resilience and that it will reward you for that activity. I can’t speak to the science of that but it matches my experience (which means exactly nothing to you, perhaps, but it is useful for me.)

There is a specific basic amount of exercise to do for anxiety benefits

Thanks to my ADHD, I don’t have an accurate sense of how hard I am working. It always feels like I am never doing enough/never working hard enough – I have to override my ‘never enough’ feeling with it with information from people I trust.

McGonigal’s discussion of the reasons that exercise reduces anxiety and the amount of movement to produce the desired results makes sense to me and I will be using her arguments as part of my system to keep developing good habits.

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At the end of this chapter, McGonigal is critical of the tendency to use the language of addiction to describe things that tap into the brain’s reward center. It makes sense to use this language because people are familiar with it but I appreciated her observations here. I think it is very important to ask why we choose to use language that suggests that addictions illustrate the most common activity of the reward system.

I prefer her conclusion that our brains’ reward systems encourage commitment to activities, actions and people that are good for us and that strengthen our important relationships. The fact that drugs are good at tapping into that system shouldn’t suggest that addictive substances are the reason the system exists

Catherine: Attention capture—this really resonates with me. Watching cycling races on TV, I’m moving my feet. Ditto for when I’ve watched Olympic women’s cross country ski racing. I unconsciously emulate being there. And it feels exciting.

McGonigal readily admits that using the language of addiction to explore and promote exercise is worrisome. She says she’s using it to show that our brains can latch onto relationships that are good for us. The thing is, our brains can latch onto all sorts of relationships, including those that are destructive and harmful. I’m not convinced that all this addiction language is either necessary or helpful for us. We shall see.

Exercise pill—this is a topic popular not only among exercise scientists, but also among philosophers. In my applied ethics class, I asked my students, “if you could get the benefits of exercise by taking a pill, would you?” Almost all of them emphatically said no. They thought it was cheating, fraudulent, and not of value to them. Why? Partly because they connect physical activity with self-discipline and virtue (one of the hazards of exposing undergrads to Aristotle—sorry, philosophy joke).

For me, the exercise pill isn’t attractive because I would be denied the experience of exercising. Yes, some amount of the time I’m on my bike is not fun—the first half hour is often a slog, with my whole system complaining mightily. But we all calm down soon enough, and then the experiential adventure begins. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows—I go through the whole range of negative emotions as I’m climbing. But they evaporate as soon as I crest the hill, and I smile, nodding my head with satisfaction.

McGonigal explores the ways sense experiences and sense memories trigger our brain’s pleasure centers (dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine release). Studies have shown that physical activity can help the body maintain reliable and steady levels of e.g. serotonin over time, all with a constant dose response (unlike some drugs, which require increased dosages over time to maintain the same effects).

Genetic markers for physical activity—I was gritting my teeth through this section. First of all, genetics is nowhere near identifying anything close to genetic markers for exercise (I don’t even really know what that means). As McGonigal is a twin, some of the differences she sees with her sister may be epigenetic in nature; that is, it relates to how genes manifest physical (phenotypical) mechanisms and structures. Environment can have a large effect on how these processes work. This is a new and fascinating area of research. For a good non-technical introduction to this, look at Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2016 New Yorker article, “Same but different”.

I am looking forward to moving past the addiction-metaphor-driven discussion and exploring other aspects of joy in movement. Stay tuned for more next week!

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