Distractions on the pathway to exercise chart illustration
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

Why Do We Put Off Exercise When We Know It’ll Make Us Feel Better?

We let dogs out to run. We should do the same for ourselves.

Distractions on the pathway to exercise chart illustration

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by noon last saturday, betty was getting restless. she’d moved from her bed, to the kitchen, to a spot by the front door, back to the bed. we were dogsitting, and it was her first full day in our house. i’d been up since 6:00 with the baby, so betty had spent six hours watching me/us run around the house, wondering if someone was ever going to take her for a walk.
(Illustrations: Brendan Leonard)
finally, i opened the front door, popped open the tailgate of the car, and had her jump in so we could go for a trail run. i’d taken almost a week off of exercising, as a cold passed through our house and we dealt with it. i had tried to rest as much as possible, which meant several days of walking less than 3,000 steps. and i, much like betty, was starting to feel a little cabin feverish.
i have not, for most of my adult life, etc. been a person who has felt like they need to get out and exercise every single day. i have friends who do—not professional athletes, just people who are out running and cycling and skiing and doing other things all the time.
i have been trying to become one of those people. but it takes some effort on my part. i don’t do it first thing in the morning, because my rationale is that no one is paying me to exercise, but people are paying me to make art, so i should do that first, and exercise later. plus i like to drink several cups of strong coffee in the morning before i go outside.
so for several hours, i gradually become more and more antsy, vaguely unsettled, feeling a kind of mild unease. i know what i need to do—go move my body—but i keep putting it off, trying to wrap up this work thing or do that other thing.
and then i finally go and run, or hike, or bike, or ski, or whatever. i sweat, i look at clouds, trees, the mountains around here, i think about stuff, and i come home. and then i’m at ease. Like i just finished a big presentation at work, or found out i don’t have to go in for jury duty after all, or filed my taxes. i feel good.
a while back, betty’s human, darcy, referred to this process as “getting your tweak off.” as in, “betty just needs to go for a run/hike/sniff and get her tweak off.” soon after that, i started thinking of how i felt on the days i exercised vs. the days I didn’t exercise. and that my friends who were so active every day might be onto something: they knew they had to head out for a few minutes and take care of themselves, get their head right by moving their feet.
my mom has always been one of these people: in the ’80s and ’90s, she ran five miles a day, five days a week, until her knees forced her to stop. so she took up cycling, hiking, walking at 5 mph, and rock climbing. she would tell you she just likes to exercise, but i think she’s in it for the chemicals. In her running days, the “runner’s high” was well-known, but studies are now finding that the runners’ high applies to more than just running.
in her 2019 book, the joy of movement, psychologist kelly mcgonigal writes about studies of endocannabinoids, the brain chemicals that are mimicked by marijuana, and that happen to be released by certain types of exercise: “Many of the effects of cannabis are consistent with descriptions of exercise-induced highs, including the sudden disappearance of worries or stress, a reduction in pain, the slowing of time, and a heightening of the senses.”
mcgonigal cites the work of university of arizona anthropologist david raichlen1, who wanted to document the actual release of endocannabinoids during exercise. he had subjects get on a treadmill for 30 minutes, and he found that runners who jogged on a treadmill tripled their levels of endocannabinoids, but people who walked on a treadmill or ran at maximum effort for the same amount of time got no effect.
(other studies have shown that cycling, walking on a treadmill at an incline, and hiking trigger similar levels of endocannabinoid releases.)
(this is where i imagine my 72-year-old mom fist-bumping nate dogg (rip) as he sings the iconic last line of dr. dre’s ‘the next episode’:’ Hey ay ay ay/smoke weed every day my mom has never, to my knowledge, smoked actual weed, but as research has now shown, she and nate dogg are essentially after the same type of thing.) 
lately i’ve been trying to be more like my friends who get outside every day, and my mom (and i guess sort of nate dogg), and like betty—just go do something for a few minutes. kelly mcgonigal, again: Anything that keeps you moving and increases your heart rate is enough to trigger nature's reward for not giving up. There's no objective measure of performance you must achieve, no pace or distance you need to reach, that determines whether you experience an exercise-induced euphoria. You just have to do something that is moderately difficult for you and stick with it for at least twenty minutes. That's because the runner's high isn't a running high. It's a persistence high.
when i let betty out of the back of the car at the trailhead on saturday, she was, predictably, excited. we ran six miles, the first three uphill, stopped at the saddle, she ate some snow, rolled in it a little bit, and then we ran back down. back at the house, she plopped onto her bed, content. and i was calm, too.
another thing about that treadmill study: dogs who jogged on the treadmill for 30 minutes? same endocannabinoid boost as humans. so i guess imagine my mom fist bumping nate dogg, who is also fist bumping betty.