September 5, 2021
You've seen the hamster wheels, right?
If you're thinking of the tiny, circular treadmills-to-nowhere that mice, rats, hamsters, rodents, and occasionally other mammals of varying shapes and sizes are often entertained with during laboratory tests of everything from time to exhaustion to calorie-burning to addiction or dopamine-response to a given substance, then you're on the right track, pun intended, I suppose.
If you're also thinking of that health club line-up of poopy-faced exercising humans flailing for hours on the shiny, black assemblage of ellipticals, StairMasters, bicycles, and—well—treadmills-to-nowhere in their own endless pursuit of calorie-burning, or escaping from a “predator,” or engaging in masochistic self-judgment and shame, or seeking pleasurable neurotransmitters, or perhaps even preparing for a grueling competition such as a marathon or triathlon, you'd also be thinking correctly.
Now, not all those examples above are activities or pursuits that I consider to be misdirected or a waste of time. Exercising can of course be good for you (news flash!), even the type of chronic repetitive motion exercise that tends to be just a bit more heavily associated with an unhealthy or hamster-wheel-esque exercise addiction. After all, we humans seem to thrive on some kind of forward motion, including not just mental forward motion such as checking off items on a list or archiving emails, but also physical forward motion such as reps on a weightlifting set or (especially) repetitive forward steps on a road, trail, or treadmill-like device. Perhaps a large part of this is related to my friend Dr. Andrew Huberman's forward motion philosophy, which suggests that a link between visual field, stress, and forward motion can result in activation of reward circuits in the brain associated with boldness, courage, and significantly reduced stress.
Exercise (or physical activity, at least) is hardwired into our genes too. I often think of that trip to the gym or that basement workout at the beginning or end of the day as a convenient way for many to scratch a primal movement itch that they're simply no longer getting from an average day immersed in a modern, post-industrial, relatively sedentary existence. This is especially true for those of us relegated to a desk job or somewhat physically inactive career, who don't have a chance to perform as much of the type of physical daily movement that would have not only from an ancestral standpoint been a very effective way to keep a human stronger, faster, and harder to kill and a better contributory member of a hard-working trie or society, but also the type of physical daily movement that can save one from chronic disease.
Just think about it.
Say you're not a construction worker or painter or bicycle messenger or some other kind of rarer-to-find person with a physically active job, and furthermore, you also have full use of modern energy-efficient transportation and ample access to highly palatable foods. But with a daily dose of exercise, you also have access to the convenient ability to be able to burn off all the calories from those foods that could otherwise threaten the onset of chronic disease like diabetes or cardiovascular disorders when over-consumed. That same exercise also allows you to retain the muscles, sinews, bone density, heart health, mitochondria, mobility, lowered stress, and other beneficial biological results of exercise that your ancestors would have gotten naturally by simply living, working, and surviving in a far more physically active context with arguably fewer chronic disease risk factors.
What a bargain! You get to have your cake and eat it too, so to speak.
I'm certain your caveman ancestor wouldn't have turned down a lifetime supply of giant ribeye steaks, carrot cake, and a cushy job in an air-conditioned office if you told him all he had to do was make sure to go on a walk and do push-ups every day to make sure all that tasty food and comfy sitting around didn't make him die early (of course, I should briefly mention the fact that I don't think exercise is the single key to healthspan and lifespan, and elements such as light, hormetic stressors, micronutrient intake, relationships, spiritual health, etc. aren't important, but I think you get what I'm saying here—when it comes to “healthy hedonism,” we live in pretty good times).
But despite exercise being of some physical and mental benefit, and also a great way to scratch the primal itch to move, to shake your body loose, to move your muscles, to reduce stress, and let a firehose loose in your arteries every day, some of us have taken it just a bit too far, haven't we? Despite exercise feeling like a noble and laudable way to “buffet your body,” and perhaps one of the greatest expressions of temperancy, self-mastery, and self-control one could show, I would encourage you to step back and question whether it's the opposite for you: whether exercise is in fact more the equivalent of trying to prove your self-worth, mindlessly burn calories, escape from emotional pain, or flail and flop around like a hamster on a wheel that's not quite sure why it's running to nowhere in the first place.
When Exercise Becomes An Addiction
OK, first I need to tell you what got me thinking about all this in the first place.
Lately, I've found myself slipping into a bit of a “comfort zone” during my daily exercising.
What I mean by that is that I've been choosing to do mostly the easy stuff, at least from a neurological complexity standpoint: plenty of push-ups, pull-ups, walking, riding the stationary bicycle, doing jumping jacks and burpees, and, when performing what could actually be considered highly uncomfortable or physically and mentally challenging exercises such as squats, deadlifts, balance exercises and the like, choosing ho-hum resistances in the 12-20 rep range, which is hardly enough weight to really force one to be highly awake, alert, and focused during exercise, or shirking anything that requires me to have my brain fully on board, such as single-leg balancing exercise, single-arm overhead kettlebell moves, etc.
At first, I thought that perhaps I'm just getting a bit older and that perhaps I'm just beginning to self-select movements that are more controllable and predictable with lower injury risk.
And yeah, that's a bit of it.
After all, I'm not training to be a professional athlete anymore, nor am I training for some kind of challenging certification with a difficult neuromuscular component, like a kettlebell training weekend. Heck, I'm not even signed up for a friendly neighborhood triathlon or 5K. So why challenge myself so much?
But I think it's more than that.
I think that my exercise has become a bit unbalanced of late, particularly as it has shifted towards simply moving for the sake of moving—kind of like, well, a hamster on a wheel.
For example, when I walk into my home gym, I've been increasingly meandering over to the hamster wheel—ahem, treadmill—to just walk for a while, telling myself I'll get around to the harder stuff when I finish my walking warm-up, but not quite getting there, or saving barely any time for what I know is a better use of my exercise time. Hey, at least I'm burning some calories and scratching my addiction—ahem, primal itch—to move.
Or when selecting plates for, say, loading up a deadlift, I find myself choosing weights that allow me to go through the range-of-motion, but not really be all-in, fully present, and dedicated to a challenging lift.
Sometimes, I'll even shirk other mental and physical growth-based opportunities, such as playing the guitar, learning a new sport, or cooking a creative recipe, and instead go “hit the gym” to mindlessly crank out a few extra sets and reps that I don't really need to do, but that my body seems drawn to by an invisible magnet just telling me I need to go move so that I can get in a better mood or feel good about myself or accomplish something, even though there are obviously many activities outside of exercise that could also achieve that result.
Maybe you've experienced the same thing.
Heck, I'd be shocked if many of my readers haven't fallen into some form or another of a type of “exercise addiction,” which is, not surprisingly, now considered to be appropriate for being classified as a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) type of behavioral addiction. As the article I've just cited notes, there are definite factors that distinguish the everyday gym enthusiast from someone addicted to exercise, and sometimes it can be a bit confusing as to whether or not we should consider, say, an elite athlete training for the Olympics compared to the devoted runner who adds an extra three calorie-burning miles to his or her running schedule after lunch at a fast-food restaurant as having an exercise addiction.
But there are indeed certain criteria that classify when exercise threatens to become exercise addiction, including:
-Tolerance: you increase the amount of exercise in order to feel the desired effect, be it a” buzz” or sense of accomplishment;
-Withdrawal: in the absence of exercise, you feel negative effects such as anxiety, irritability, restlessness, and sleep problems;
-Lack of control: you have been unsuccessful at attempts to reduce exercise level or cease exercising for a certain period of time;
-Intention effects: you are unable to stick to your intended routine as evidenced by exceeding the amount of time devoted to exercise or consistently going beyond the intended amount;
-Time: a great deal of time is spent preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from exercise;
-Reduction in other activities: as a direct result of exercise, your social, occupational, and/or recreational activities occur less often or are stopped;
-Continuance: you continue to exercise despite knowing that this activity is creating or exacerbating physical, psychological, and/or interpersonal problems.
Based on a wide range of studies on exercise addiction, it appears the prevalence of this type of so-called “exercise addiction” in the general population is surprisingly high—close to 3%. Among certain groups such as ultra-marathon runners and sport science students, the percentage is even higher (in the paper cited above, 42% of the members at a French fitness club met the criteria for exercise addiction!). Furthermore, this type of addiction often goes hand-in-hand with some kind of eating disorder, including the infamous vicious cycle of exercising-to-eat, then eating-to-exercise.
Typically, in the case of behavioral addiction, the frequency and intensity of exercise continue until exercise becomes life’s main organizing principle. The addicted person feels the physical rush and sense of gratification but progresses gradually to run further distances, lift more weights, or attend more gym classes. Eventually, the behavior that began as a way to make life more bearable by facilitating coping threatens to make “normal” life unmanageable, since the entire existence of the exercise-addicted person begins to revolve around exercise, and withdrawal symptoms begin to set in when exercise isn't squeezed in.
It certainly doesn't help that—based on that primal itch I was describing to you earlier—exercise has some pretty potent mood-altering effects attributed to altered chemical functioning in the brain. There are three biological mechanisms that likely drive this urge to exercise: 1) The Thermogenic Hypothesis, which dictates that exercise increases body temperature and thereby reduces somatic anxiety due to an increased temperature in certain brain regions (this is probably why also the sauna is addicting for many people); 2) The Catecholamine Hypothesis, which dictates that exercise releases catecholamines, which are strongly implicated in the control of mood, attention, and movement as well as endocrine and cardiovascular responses linked to stress; and 3) The Endorphin Hypothesis, which dictates that exercise releases endorphins, which are pain-killing opiates that occur naturally in the body. Often, excessive exercise continues even after the benefits that one is seeking have occurred, kind of like the alcoholic who continues to drink even after the desired stress relief from alcohol has occurred, often leaving someone who would have done just fine with a quick 30-minute workout still struggling at the gym 90 minutes or more later.
Now look: I'm not going to unpack the entire topic of exercise addiction in a single short article. From exercise anorexia to Adonis syndrome to muscle dysmorphia (AKA “bigorexia,” “megarexia,” or “reverse anorexia”), there's an enormous subset of the active population who are under the delusional or exaggerated belief that their body is too fat or too small or too skinny or insufficiently muscular or insufficiently lean, or who have convinced themselves that if they don't achieve X minutes of exercise per day that they'll suffer excess stress or go crazy or die an early death or entirely lose their confidence and self-esteem. So exercise addiction is a big problem.
But really, what I want to focus on in this article is not exercise addiction per se, but rather the type of “lazy exercise” that often goes hand-in-hand with or leads to some kind of exercise addiction: namely, just moving to move like that darn hamster: just wasting one's time doing mundane, mindless tasks in the gym to check the box or convince yourself that you're somehow making your body better, when, in fact, you're often just wasting your time flopping around like a muppet or grinding away like a hamster on a wheel, often overtrained or under-recovered or under-challenged or all three. That's the type of problem that I think flies under the radar and that I've identified as a habit in myself and many others as something that isn't really serving us well, and that is instead leading to wasted hours, overuse injuries, or poor results.
So what should you do if you've become that hamster on a wheel who is under the impression that you're engaged in a noble self-mastery and self-control, when, in fact, you're just basically binging on low-quality movement to get a dopamine rush or feel better about yourself?
How To Be Less Of A Hamster
First, the primary question you need to be asking yourself is this…
…why am I doing this movement?
In other words, what is the purpose of your workout?
Is it to strengthen a specific muscle group to lower the risk of injury; to be able to perform a specific sport skill more efficiently; to maintain or better increase performance in a specific lift you might be trying to improve upon (e.g. clean, squat, deadlift, swing, get-up, etc.); to efficiently elevate metabolism and burn fat for the sake of long-term health and not as an excuse to eat (yet another) pint of ice cream tonight?
If the answers are yes, then great. Proceed.
Is it to achieve X minutes of exercise because that's how long you told yourself you were going to be at the gym, even if you're finished with everything you actually need to do long before that point? Is it because you looked at yourself in the mirror this morning or pushed yourself away from the dinner table too late last night and now feel guilty about overeating? Is it to avoid an awkward or uncomfortable discussion with your spouse or family member or business associate?
If the answers are yes, then you better check yourself.
Here's another way to think about this: some in the exercise science and research community have contrasted the difference between the two examples illustrated above as “mindful exercise” vs. “mindless exercise.” Qualities of mindful exercise include:
- Orientation to the present moment
- Attention to internal processes (ex. breathing)
- Bodily rejuvenation
- Enhancement of the mind-body connection
- Alleviation of mental and physical strain
Qualities of mindless exercise include:
- Orientation to the past and/or future
- Focus on external outcomes (ex. calories burned)
- Bodily injury and/or depletion
- Disruption of the mind-body connection
- Exacerbation of mental and physical strain
So if you're able to fully turn off your brain during exercise, then you should definitely consider introducing an actual goal for your session (besides burning yesterday's carrot cake calories), and experiment with varied complexity, form, weight, and added physical and mental challenge. After all, do you think a Russian powerlifter can stare at the TV or scroll through Instagram prior to a lift? Approach at least a few of your workouts with that kind of intense focus, and you'll realize how much you may have been wasting your time in the past. You should also consider whether you feel rejuvenated and refreshed from your movement session, or whether you are simply starving, beat-up, and out of physical and mental gasoline for the remainder of your day's arguably more important tasks.
Furthermore, once you have achieved what you need to achieve for any given exercise session, give yourself permission to just be done. Frankly, there are other forms of body betterment that you can certainly embrace with any extra time—activities that can pull you out of a hamster-esque exercise rut and that don't involve mindless chronic-repetitive motion or sitting around slumped over on a weight training machine waiting for your next set. These activities include the type of heat, cold, light, breathwork, sunshine walks, or social sports that I discussed in my recent two-part podcast series with Tom Digan (Part 1 here and Part 2 here).
I realize that this is all easy enough to say, but quite another to do, especially if you need to break a deeply ingrained habit of your come-hell-or-high-water morning hour-long slog at the park or that extra weight training session you don't really need to do but you do anyway because that's your habit and that's what makes you feel good about yourself.
So I have a quite useful tip for you, which I recently picked up from the great book The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It's a very simple psychological re-wiring tactic that can be handy for anything from quitting nicotine or excessive alcohol to keeping your hands out of a candy jar to spending less time on social media. The framework, which you can read more about here or in even greater detail in Charles' book, goes like this:
- Identify the routine
- Experiment with rewards
- Isolate the cue
- Have a plan
So, for example, instead of:
Cue: Lunch hour.
Routine: Run or bicycle mindlessly for 30-60 minutes (even if your knee hurts, or you're missing lunch with business associates, or you hate running and cycling).
Reward: Dopamine surge, increased fitness, and feeling good that you checked the box.
Cue: Lunch hour.
Routine: Five sets of heavy, focused, challenging deadlifts, or five all-out 100m sprints with deep nasal breathing during recovery followed by an icy cold shower.
Reward: Dopamine surge, increased fitness, and feeling good that you checked the box.
Now, these two examples may look the same, but I'd argue that the first routine is far more hamster wheel-ish, while the second routine is better for you, both physically and mentally compared to simply flailing mindlessly at a low-level intensity for a series of set minutes to which you are stubbornly committed.
Here's another example:
Routine: An hour on the elliptical trainer with a frown on your face.
Reward: Either getting to eat again, or feeling better about yourself that maybe now you won't get fat.
Routine: Selecting the highly palatable foods around your house that cause you to overeat in the first place, and distributing them to the homeless.
Reward: Elimination of a tempting variable, a good service done to others and surprisingly, a similar feel-good neurotransmitter release as you would have gotten by overexercising.
I'm hoping you get the idea here. In a nutshell, you can identify cues that might be causing you to mindlessly exercise, then set up a routine that responds to those cues, namely a routine that involves something other than mindless exercise. As a result, you wind up re-wiring your brain to select activities that involve a healthy alternative to chronic repetitive hamster-esque motion or any other form of time-wasting movement that may even qualify as exercise addiction.
As I finished writing up these thoughts for you, I stumbled across some additional and quite helpful food for thought by author and fitness trainer Marty Gallagher. Here's a snippet of what he has to say in his thought-provoking article “Exercise Pomposity: Are you a mindless exerciser – or a trainer with a purpose?”:
“…the facility has 40 high-tech cardio devices—ten per row, four rows deep—like battle tanks in formation. What a huge financial investment. Many of these machines have built-in TVs even though the gym has three 60-inch Sony TVs hanging high. All the gerbil-wheel riders can watch TV and hopefully distract themselves from the mind-numbing drudgery of riding these cardio devices. No matter what day, or cardio machine, everyone had one subtle, startling, disturbing commonality: no one ever changed or improved the shape or contours of their physique. They all looked exactly the same as the day I first say them…”
“…that’s mean to point out, isn’t it? In our politically correct culture, pointing out a lack of tangible results is rude, hateful, disrespectful and just plain mean. “Now just a doggone minute Mr. Rude Neanderthal, these morning trainees are sincere, disciplined, intelligent, hard-working individuals. They get up at the crack of dawn and drive to the facility to exercise! They serve as wonderful examples to our youth and are to be praised, not damned, by a missing-link, win-at-any-cost, strive-for-excellence type like you. Who elected you Pope, Mr. Mean Man?!…”
“…how horrible of me to point out that these shining examples are getting zero results for all those hours engaged in their mindless gerbil-wheel activity. Couldn’t the PC police at least collectively hook up all the diligent, result-free cardio machine riders to some master generator that could provide free electricity to poor people? At least the collective effort could be put towards the collective good—exercise Marxism, “From each according to his ability to pedal, to each according to his electrical needs and inability to pay.” The lack of cardio results for these exercisers is directly proportional to the amount of sweat being generated by the group—zero. In aerobic world, no sweat equals no results, and lots of sweat equals lots of results. The PC folks would call this “an inconvenient truth”…”
“…everywhere I look I see people engaged in mindless, result-free exercise. Everyone is in motion but no one is training. In fact, 99% of the 70+ people using the facility could be bowling, playing golf, disco dancing or playing badminton and getting the same results—none—while having a lot more fun. But they’d lose their patina of fitness nobility. “Look at me! I am noble, disciplined, and up at the crack of dawn doing fitness!” This is the same self-importance I see in the joggers who insist on running along major highways, facing oncoming traffic while making eye contact with all the drivers. “Look at me! Praise me! I am doing fitness!”” They could be jogging in beautiful, quiet, picturesque neighborhoods one block away, but that would deprive them of the attention. Never mind they’re inhaling toxic exhaust fumes with every breath, it’s all about their need for attention…”
“…a high-intensity, low volume, minimalistic training approach can enable you to experience the same blissful, endorphin-releasing, hypertrophy-inducing, result-producing workout that I experienced in my squat workout and that I experience in all my workouts to varying degrees. Let’s vow to stop mindless exercising and instead embrace intense training. Participation trophies are for losers. We’re about creating success and results. In one of his movies, the great Sean Connery muttered these immortal lines, “The losers whine and moan and complain about the unfairness of it all—the winners kick ass then go home and F@#K the cheerleaders!”…”
Anyways, the entirety of Marty's article is well worth a read, especially since, as you can read above, he had the same self-awareness as I think I do right now while I'm writing this: namely that some may think that by me pointing out the hamster-like activities of many exercise enthusiasts that I'm being mean, haughty, arrogant, or potentially dismissive of people getting physically fit, or ignoring the fact that the “pros outweigh the cons” and people are at least doing something other than sitting on the couch eating Oreos, right?
Yet I still stand by my recommendation to check yourself, and to ask yourself whether the majority of your routine is another mindless, habitual addiction and hence a lack of self-control, or whether your exercise is mindful, focused, goal-oriented and allows you to have time and energy to perform other activities that allow you to be as impactful as possible with your life's purpose.
In other words, don't be a hamster.
What do you think? Have you found yourself slipping into the same mindless exercise rut that I have? Do you have your own experience or tips to share? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Leave your comments and feedback below. I read it all.