3 May 2011

on the emotional treadmill

Around a month ago I renewed my gym membership, and I meant to write about it then.

Canny readers may realize that would put the original intended post date to be April Fool's Day, a day I thought would be somewhat accurate given how unlikely something about this would have seemed even to me not too long ago.

How I've managed to incorporate regular exercise (and some not so regular, too*) into my daily routine isn't really the focus of this, though, and at the risk of turning this into yet another rambling pile of nonsense going nowhere I'm not going to talk about that at all.

Instead, I intend to ramble on and on about a cancelled TV show I've been watching while walking and running on the treadmill. Thanks to wireless networking, while I exercise I can view streaming video, which is good because without some sort of distraction using a treadmill is really, really boring (I don't know about you, but whenever I'm on there I get the sense I'm getting nowhere).

So I've been working my way through the entire run of the American Life on Mars. I'd enjoyed the BBC series and had long been curious how successfully it might be translated across the pond. Only a few episodes remain (it only lasted one season) and so far I've rather enjoyed it.

A discussion about why good television shows such as this barely make it a season when poorly written, bland looking programming survives year after year is not something I'm interested in discussing, as such always ends with the wistful listing of shows cancelled before their time more than any sort of useful, actionable solution to the problem.

Life on Mars grabbed me from its first moments--I felt emotional investment with Sam and his plight almost from the beginning--and hasn't let go of me since. That said, I can but wonder if it is as much a result of good writing and production as it is of my viewing circumstances.

Namely that I am exclusively watching this show while I'm exercising. My understanding of physiology and psychology are limited to what I've read or overheard (and not managed to forget), but I believe I've heard that the mind can be tricked into "feeling" emotions if the body's already exhibiting characteristics of said emotions. Which is to say if you smile long enough, genuinely smiling, you can elevate your mood, though not necessarily to actual happiness. My hypothesis, then, is that the elevated heart rate, quicker breathing, and the rest of things that happen to me while running on the treadmill combined with the emotional beats in the show makes them pack that extra punch, so that triumphant moments trigger feelings of exuberance and the sad stuff hits me that little bit harder.

I have no real facts to back this up, other than when recently I read Jane McGonigal's Reality is broken which, among many topics, discusses the "dancer's high" which, probably much like the so-called "runner's high", is an endorphin release tied to some degree to physical exertion. While the dancer's high, as she describes it, correlates to synchronization in group activities, I suspect there might be something to it when I'm on the treadmill by myself or running next to somebody on the adjacent one.

It's all suspicion at this point, though, since I lack a proper test environment (I don't recall thinking the episodes I watched of The Larry Sanders show on the treadmill struck me as funnier as the ones I watched when sedentary, but I don't think that would count as a true control). Likewise I am reluctant to watch Life on Mars when not exercising as doing so would almost undoubtedly result in me finishing out the series in one fell swoop instead of a half hour here and there.

While it would be no doubt satisfying to watch it all through to the end, knowing I have more of it queued up to watch while I exercise helps me look forward to exercising that little bit more.

After all, despite me doing it almost every day now, exercise is still not something I really enjoy. I don't think we can ever truly change, and not liking exercising would not be out of character of me as I think of myself from years ago. As long as I keep distracting myself with quality entertainment, though, I'm finally getting myself into shape. And enjoying what I'm watching along the way, perhaps that little bit more.

* A topic for another post someday will be about my (nearly) nightly exercise with a sledgehammer. For now, check out (terribly named) Shovelglove.

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