The Millennial Pilgrim: Understanding the connection between intense physical activity and courage 

What stops us from holding the plank for 10 more seconds, or makes us give up before the last five leg raises?

It’s the fear of the pain. Doing few more repetitions wouldn’t kill us. Yet, the memory of the pain somehow makes it impossible to move forward with the last few rounds of exercise. What happens when we breach that layer of fear and do the last few rounds, which according to fitness trainers is the most important part of the exercise regime? With every extra bit of exercise beyond your body’s perceived pain threshold, you overcome fear, and in turn build courage, along with building muscle.

Recently, I was listening to neuroscientist Andrew Huberman’s podcast on fear and courage. What Huberman is proposing is that the body’s stress response popularly known as the Freeze, Flight and Fight response doesn’t function the way we currently understand it. While mostly the three responses are clubbed as one single neuro-biological axis, there is something fundamental that makes fighting a completely distinct response from flight and freeze.

The emotion that precedes fight is intense frustration where one might even consider giving up. And eventually, after a good amount of frustration, one who has built capacity over time is able to confront or attack or fight or take on whatever is bothering them.

Huberman cited Vince Lombardi, American football coach’s quote, which I found to be extremely helpful in understanding the dynamics between physical capacity and courage: “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

Be it meditation or regular high-intensity workout, engaging in these activities don’t automatically increase our chances of success in life. We work out or meditate, or eat right to build capacity, to show up in the world in a better way, to overcome fear and to really understand who we are beyond our reactive patterns and fluctuating emotional states driven by external stimuli.

Interestingly, according to Huberman (he has pulled off some insane stunts like swimming with white sharks to study fear), putting oneself in challenging situations is as much a training ground for capacity building as having a nurturing and loving community built on trust.

When you are part of a community or a safe place, which can absorb a range of your emotional output without judgement, you are more likely to build your emotional muscle. Community of ‘like-minded’ people with shared values is a mental and emotional gym.

The fitness industry, the nutrition industry and the mindfulness industry have collectively distorted the entire purpose of why we need to get these things right in life. It’s not to look sexy or relax our minds or improve our personality. Right food, movement, breath, work and community help you to overcome fear, confront adversities and show up as better human beings even when the one sitting opposite you, or life in general might, be giving you a hard time.

Moreover, what makes the biggest difference in how well we cope with a difficult situation is whether we chose to be in it. When we volunteer to be in stressful situations, we are more likely to succeed in our endeavours. To choose discomfort over comfort, to choose action and to risk failure over inaction, we need to be physically and mentally resilient. And that’s why we hit the gym, we cut down sugar in our diet, we go for a run, and we go out of our way to help other people. To build the emotional and the physical muscle to endure failure, uncertainty, disease and the general drama of life.

The cultural pressure on working out, and ‘dieting’ and their intent on controlling beauty standards of a given era, has resulted in psychological conditions like body dysmorphia and eating disorders like bulimia and emotional overeating. Clearly, doing the right things with the wrong intention can only result in more complex problems.

Similarly, the wellness industry has made a criminal out of stress. It is made out to be this permanent arch nemesis for the modern urban man/woman. Research, however, shows it is the belief that stress can kill you or make you sick that often results in higher mortality rates among those suffering from stress.

In fact, a minimum level of anxiety is required for optimal performance. Or else, you will never move a finger to complete unfinished tasks. The end line is if you have to live through life, which more or less will be full of stressful situations, you have to build capacity — both physical and mental.

Be it resistance training or hours of meditation, nothing is going to end the suffering in life. All it is going to do is give us the resilience to go through all the suffering without constantly falling back to our reactive patterns that we picked very early on in life. Second, it is going to give us the physical and the mental energy to break barriers both internally and externally.

So, hold that plank for a few more seconds, go for an intense hike, hit the swimming pool once in a while for a couple of hours. You might just be exercising your way into making more courageous decisions in life.

(The writer is a mental health and behavioral sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults. She can be found as @the_millennial_pilgrim on Instagram and Twitter.)

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