Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Exercise, The Zone, and Altered States

I don't know what happened. Maybe it was the sudden change of weather, from just barely above freezing to the mid to upper 60s. For years I've said that when the temperature begins to rise into the 60s in early spring I feel like I'm waking up from deep coma. Summer is my favorite season (I HATE winter), and the spring weather just gets me excited for the upcoming months. But something else happened. I'm not sure what. I feel like a switch suddenly flipped in my mind this past Saturday. It is a switch that hasn't been fully flipped in about two years.

What happened two years ago? I lost 30 pounds. But that was only the beginning. I was going to the gym 5-6 days a week; 4 days a week was a "bad" week for me. I was addicted to working out, and in a good way. I enjoyed the euphoria I got after my weekly special "killer workout" which consisted of a 90-minute swim or protracted treadmill running followed by completing the entire circuit of weight machines. The weight just fell off at a steady rate of 2 pounds per week, and I was getting stronger. My state of mind was changing, I was more alert, and I had more energy. Suddenly, the gym was a single-minded focus for me and was a place I looked forward to going to every day. Eventually, I began training myself to run again. Overall, I was constantly in an altered state. I didn't just feel euphoric coming from the gym-- I felt euphoric going to the gym. And this euphoria kept me motivated and energetic and led to a kind of super-euphoria after working out. It was a wonderful cycle that helped me lose weight, condition my heart, and get stronger. I even found myself drawn to healthier foods and less interested in sugar, which caused my weight gain to begin with (it's a VERY powerful addiction, trust me). Why? Again, I don't know. It's like a different part of my brain was suddenly in charge. But I was also eating less, was eating more sensible portions. I wonder if exercises such as running and swimming, which tighten the abdominal muscles, and perhaps press against my stomach, helped to curb my appetite.

But the light from this switch gradually dimmed a year later. How? I don't know. I was still going to the gym a few times a week, but my workouts didn't "feel" the same. Nor was my motivation the same. I was going to the gym as a matter of routine, but only 3-4 times a week. Then last year I gained back 10 pounds because I was starting to eat more sugary snacks again. When I tried curbing these tendencies and running off the extra weight, I found myself starting to get back into the Zone, albeit slowly. I was running almost every day. But just as as the switch was beginning to turn back on, I gave myself patellar tendonitis. After that, I had to go to physical therapy and could only do cycling for several months. How could I possibly get back in the Zone when I was only exercising my legs? How could I feel euphorically motivated to get on a stationary bike and not do much of anything? I needed a full body workout to do that, and I couldn't even swim (I am not good at freestyle, and breast stroke aggravated my knees because of the kicks involved).

As I started to get better, I began using the seated elliptical at the gym. That worked my arms and legs, but I was sitting. It just wasn't enough. It wasn't my entire body. Then last week I made a decision: For one thing, I was going to go to the gym 6 times a week (trainers recommend you take one day to recuperate) like I did before. If my knees hurt after my workout, I'd just ice them. Even if my knees got worse at first, ultimately they would get better if I took some of the extra weight off-- I'm within normal limits (mid 130s), but just barely.

I started going to the gym more often but it still felt partially forced. But then last Saturday I suddenly felt like I was in the Zone again, for the first time since 2013. A switch had flipped in my mind. I was finding myself doing what I did in 2013: getting out of bed and going straight to the gym. Suddenly working out on the seated elliptical even felt a little different. But why? It's the same workout that was boring me. Then yesterday the temperature went up into the mid 60s, and it was a perfect day for a swim. And suddenly I really, really wanted to swim. I went to the gym thinking that maybe I'd swim for an hour, but I ended up feeling energetic from the moment I got into the pool. I ended up doing a 100-minute swim (plus a 5-minute warmup and 5-minute cool down). I was so energized that the altered state that comes from being in the Zone made me feel that just swimming wasn't enough. No. I was launching myself off from the walls, twisting, turning... I almost felt like I could flip through the air like dolphins do when they swim. In this altered state I felt like I was one giant muscle and the pool was my conquest. That was just how I felt two years ago.

When I walked out of the gym I was wonderfully weary and euphoric. I knew that I would have to take the next day off to let my muscles heal. The expression "getting ripped" isn't just a metaphor-- your muscles do tear and you need to give them a day to regenerate after a killer workout. But I didn't want to take the day off. I wanted to go swimming again today, and I found myself counting the hours until tomorrow. Tomorrow I will be swimming for one hour (as I said, killer workouts are weekly). And it will be a vigorous, energetic swim. What's more, I didn't even have to ice my knees after this workout-- the swimming seems to be helping the healing process.

So I feel like I'm back in the Zone. The switch has flipped. I'm in an altered state. I am confident that I will lose the extra 10 pounds by June with an ultimate target weight of 110 by the end of the summer (yes, 110 is within normal limits for my height. If it's too much of a loss, I'll adjust. No big deal.).  Yes, I know gut feelings don't mean anything, but something else is going on. In this altered state, where I suddenly want to practically live at the gym, where I suddenly have little to no interest in sugary snacks, where I suddenly feel like I can just kick ass, I instinctively know what I need to do. Maybe this is just the fact that it's become easy for me to avoid junk food lately. Maybe it's just the fact that I suddenly feel increased energy during my workout and instinctively know how to make these workouts more effective (ie, the twisting, turning, etc. during swimming, for example). Maybe it's both.

But the Zone isn't just my sudden motivation to "live" at the gym. It all ties in with a sudden increase in confidence I haven't had in almost two years (I got fired from two jobs, which was a severe blow to my ego). Maybe it helps that I recently have been able to get work as a freelance writer. But whatever the case, some switch flipped in my mind on Saturday, the same one that flipped two years ago when I started making exercise an almost-daily part of my life. I don't know how it works. If I could bottle it and sell it, I'd be rich. I also wish I knew how to describe this state of mind because words don't do it justice. Unless you've experienced it, you might as well be asking me to describe what the 5th dimension looks like. But I suspect that there's some chemical change going on. I wish I knew. I wish there would be studies on this sort of thing. I'd like to know what the chemical reaction is and what triggers it. Exercise physiology and how the brain works both fascinate me to no end. But whatever the case, I'm feeling much better about life than I have in a long, long time.

I was originally thinking about writing a post about a state of mind that I sometimes get into, which I call the Monster. But this week I was just feeling too damned positive.

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