Why Do I Workout?

An attempt to reinforce the importance of physical exercise in my mind

Date: Apr 16, 2020


I've been working out consistently for the past couple of years now. I don't do protein shakes and other nutrition techniques that could have significant impact on muscle growth. Hence, my gains aren't as high as they could be. I like to think my decision stems from prudence and not laziness/gluttony. The problem with artificial high protein diet is that the moment you stop working out, your muscles turn to flab. I've seen friends who stuck to a whey protein heavy diet transition from gym beasts to amorphous blobs once they stopped working out. I figure I should stick to a natural diet that wouldn't have such repercussions in an eventuality where I stop working out regularly. Case in point, the lockdown situation with coronavirus.

The Physical Benefits

Ramblings aside, I initially started working out since I was gaining a lot of weight and found myself growing unfit by the day. I started with weight training (couple of days a week) and yoga (once or twice a week). I started noticing these superficial benefits in a short period of time:

  1. Three months into a desk job, my back started to ache frequently. Yoga fixed this completely by improving my core strength and flexibility.
  2. Weight training + cardio (least favourite part) improves overall strength and stamina. For the first time in my life, I started to like what I saw in my mirror. I was somehow kinder to myself now and had an increased sense of self-worth. Interestingly, girls were checking me out more often compared to my earlier days (maybe that's just my imagination) and I had higher confidence when I went out on dates.
  3. My food habits improved automatically. Initially, I used to eat whatever I could get my hands on as long as it was tasty. I couldn't care less about sugars, fat, calories and all other metrics relevant to health and nutrition. Without any conscious effort, I started to cut down on high-fat, high-sugar foods. Thanks to my routine, my body started to respond negatively to junk food. Unhealthy food just made me feel uneasy and lethargic whereas the healthy options started making me feel positively energetic. Post workouts, I craved fruits and good food rather than salty junk food.
    Note: This is a really slow process. My body slowly started to tune itself. I didn't quit anything cold turkey and I still hate salads. But my diet is relatively healthier now. Also, my portion control sense improved.

A Sound Mind In A Sound Body

I also noticed some ancillary benefits that turned out to be more important than the physical fitness aspect. Regular workouts changed my mental game. Increased discipline and work ethic in physical fitness started spilling into my work life as well. Mens sana in corpore sano is usually translated as "a healthy mind in a healthy body". Time and again, martial arts instructors, athletes and soldiers have used this phrase to drill down the importance of physical exercise in shaping mental and psychological well-being. I can now confidently say (from personal experience), that it holds true.

1. Discipline Spillover

I'm an ambitious person by nature. But my work ethic hardly ever matches the difficulty of my goals. I used to do well in school just by studying at the last minute for exams. I learned all the wrong lessons from such experiences. Right from kindergarten to the coursework for my Masters, I was used to cramming right before a deadline and acing the exams  (decent grades at the very least). But here's the problem, I learned a lot of names and formulas, but never truly understood the concepts. It took me 23+ years to learn the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. Working with the research team at Kindred and the few interactions with Prof. Rich Sutton set me on the right path.

There's a lot of hacks to ace a standardized test. But there's no substitute for hard work when it comes to learning the fundamentals of a subject. As a chronic procrastinator, I had to and still am unlearning a lot of my bad work habits. When it comes to long-term physical fitness, there's no shortcuts. You stick to the basics and improve by sheer repetition and incremental growth. The lessons I learned here directly apply to academic learning as well. The tasks may change, but the fundamental principles don't. I've written about discipline spillover earlier. It can be found here.

2. Endorphins

I don't feel like going to the gym on a lot of days. But somehow I manage to drag myself through a workout routine. And it does have a payoff. Physical exercise helps increase the production of the brain's feel-good neurotransmitters (i.e., endorphins). It also stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin (Healthline Article). Yoga and other aerobic exercises lowers levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline (Harvard Health, Healthline Article). Regardless of how bad or worthless I felt, it managed to improve my mood and overall sense of well-being. For example, the runner's high, the relaxation post a high-intensity workout, the sated joy of mindfulness during a Shavasana post yoga, etc., are just a few things that helped me stay sane.

3. Sense of self-worth

I do not have any scientific evidence for this. I can only speak from personal experience. As someone who is ruthlessly self-critical, I have a hard time managing my sense of self-worth and self-esteem. The guilt of lazing around when I know I'm supposed to be doing something worthwhile gnaws at me from the inside out. The downward spiral of procrastination and low self-esteem is all to familiar. Once I developed the habit of working out, I somehow started to see myself as a responsible person. I could hold myself accountable and count on myself to get things done. Eminem has a beautiful bar in the song Rap God - "I bully myself 'cause I make me do what I put my mind to" . I think our sense of self-worth typically comes from incremental progress towards a goal. It's derived from the journey, not the destination. Exercise isn't glamorous, it isn't fun. You don't experience any short-term gains. But it's a small price to pay for wonderful long-term benefits. If only, I could get my brain to remember it when required. 

4. Venting you anger and frustration

Have you ever been so angry that you wanted to punch the wall, smash your plates or just rip out a guttural scream that would shatter the glass? So much repressed anger that you feel like destroying something? Well, you are not alone. If you don't vent out these feeling properly, you start to take it out on yourself via a range of self-destructive tendencies. These are a few tricks that seemed to work for me:

  • Kickboxing. Go enroll in a kickboxing class and try out a few powerful combos. Beat the crap out of the punching bag. Push yourself to your limits and unleash all your power in your kicks and punches. Don't hold anything back. When you're done, you feel so drained and tired that you let go of your anger. Your deep-seated anger won't go away in one session. Atleast you'd get through the shitty day.
  • Bench Press, Deadlift and other heavy weight exercises. This is not as effective as boxing. But it does help. Same advice as before, push yourself to the limits, add extra weights if you need to. Listen to your workout mix and squeeze a few extra reps into your routine. You'd feel better when you are done.
  • Run. Run like the wind. Doesn't matter if it's outside or on a treadmill. Listen to your workout mix and feel that survival instinct kick in. Cardio of any form is an excellent way to channel your rage.

5. Transforming your sorrow into rage which can be vented out

Sometimes life is a bitch and you keep living. There's a multitude of things that could potentially go wrong in our lives (e.g., grief, breakup, loneliness, chronic illness, death of dreams, etc.) Any one of these could torpedo your life into a self-destructive spiral filled self-pity, self-loathing and rage. Self-pity is a bane that keeps giving. You could wallow in self-pity for weeks/months with no end in sight. I only found one solution that works to an extent:

  • Running. I'm not a huge fan of running. I find it repetitive and boring. Even more so compared to weight training. Yet, I still believe running is crucial towards developing mental resolve. Think about it, when you are running, every single instinct of you body screams at you to stop trying to kill yourself and go rest. You need fortitude to pull through. And that doesn't come easy. I usually listen to songs like Lose Yourself, Kings Never Die, Maara Theme, Nerruppu Da, etc., to get through a run. I'd walk up to the treadmill wondering if I'd last 2 mins. But the moment I listen to Eminem's powerful verses, the lyrics resonate on a deeply personal level and I find a way to pull out that inner strength. It starts to work up an anger that uses the self-pity as fuel. On my bad days, when I chose to run, I felt like I was outrunning my inner demons, as if I was one step ahead of them. Running enabled me to stand up to my ruthless inner voices. In summary, (i) use whatever is left of your grit to drag yourself to the treadmill (ii) get on the treadmill and listen to some powerful music that resonates with you on a subconscious level (iii) run as if your life depends on it (iv) once you are done with the run, go complete the rest of your workout.

P.S: Just to be clear, exercise by itself isn't going to cure depression. Get help, talk to friends and family or a therapist if you are stuck and need help. But I can promise one thing - working out definitely helps manage the pain and subsequently gives you some breathing room to heal yourself.

Concluding Remarks

I wish I was more into sports and other athletic stuff in high school. It would have turned me into a rounded, well-balanced individual equipped with the right set of life skills. Better late than never I guess :)