David McRaney is a curator of examples of irrational behavior. They’re almost always applicable to health habits, especially exercise—because few aspects of American life expose our irrationality quite like exercise.
We need to do it in order to survive. We don’t do it.
A few months ago, McRaney posed this question on Facebook:
“Have you ever devoted many hours of practice to something? Why did you do it?”
He was gathering ideas for a podcast episode on how practice changes the brain, and the first thing that popped into my head was the 10+ hours I was spending a week at tango practice. I posted this response:
“Practice makes addict. I get a high from feeling like I’m doing something a little better than last time, and also from feeling like I’m inching closer to mastery. The more I do rock climbing and tango, and the more obsessed I become.”
(Should you happen to listen to this episode, my response was read aloud at minute 11:11 :-P )
I think that if you want to exercise regularly, you have to get addicted to an activity. If you’re like most people, the goal to be healthy isn’t enough. Exercise will fall below more pressing or interesting things on your to-do list. The exercise endorphins and physical results aren’t enough to overpower urgent work tasks or pub invites that crop up.
Before I thought that the secret to making exercise non-negotiable was to have a fitness identity and find an activity that suits your personality. If you like solving problems, climb. If you like strategizing against an opponent, box. If like repetitiveness, run.
But my response about why I practice got me thinking: maybe it’s not the perfect activity but the practice that gets us hooked?
It could be that practice feeds our hunger to get good at something. Or it could be about focusing long enough to achieve a state of flow, where we’re fully engaged, pushing our limits, losing track of time, losing track of other people. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says this state of mind is deeply satisfying to humans. And it comes at the intersection of things we enjoy and deliberate practice.
While the “10,000 hour rule” appears to be a myth (see the YANSS podcast), there is a clear connection among practice and mastery and fulfillment. So if we get more obsessed as we inch closer to mastery, then having a drive to excel may be just as essential as picking the “right” activity.
That takes the pressure off finding our ideal sport and instead invites us to do anything we’ll practice long enough to get hooked. (Which is good, because according to an Australian talent identification quiz, my ideal sport is gymnastics…)
So, how DOES practice change the brain?
In that podcast, McRaney interviews David Epstein (author of The Sports Gene) about the 80 millisecond lag in human processing. Basically, by the time we consciously register something, it’s already happened. And he says this should make things like ducking a punch or hitting a baseball impossible.
But through practice, we develop the ability to react without processing. Are we using intuition? Are we making predictions based on past experience? Whatever it is, instant reaction allows us to perform with extreme efficiency. Shutting off our thinking also lets us operate at our actual physical limits rather than our perceived ones, which are constrained by fear and physical discomfort.
Great athletes rarely talk about how good it feels to do their sport. Instead, they talk about the exhilaration of extreme achievement. The Iron Cowboy didn’t say completing 30 full Iron Distance races in 11 countries in one year was fun… but he was hooked. And the fitness benefits followed.
If you’re in an exercise rut, find a sport, start logging hours and see what happens. It might be something you love doing. But more importantly, it should be something you have a drive to get good at.
Like they say over at Gold Medal Bodies: “Don’t die without having explored what your body is capable of.”
P.S. I’m not talking about actual exercise addiction, just a fitness passion you pursue regularly. Exercising too much can lead to malnutrition, injury, amenorrhea in women and other serious health problems. It’s important to be aware of signs that you’re over-training or exercising compulsively.