Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Fear and Lifting (Not Necessarily in Las Vegas)

(Update: A version of this post appears in the October 2013 issue of Stride magazine, where I'm a new columnist. Check it out!)

Part of being a weightlifter is the willingness to regularly confront fear. My emotional state (as it relates to weights) fluctuates quite a bit within and between workouts, but when the heavy squat routine rolls around every sixth week, fear is lurking in my mind somewhere. It’s not a question of whether I’ll be afraid—it’s a question of how I will handle it.

Is “fear” too strong a word? No, I don’t think so. The last time I did heavy squats, I did one set at 165 pounds and a second set at 145 pounds. I always make sure the safety bars are at the appropriate height, so the chances of my being injured at that amount of weight are very low. Yet I think that’s why I feel afraid as I prepare to start the set, then as I get to the difficult last few reps. Part of me believes I am going to be injured. Not only injured, actually, but crushed to death.
Probably not dying, though one wonders

Crushed to death. That is just scary. Even though I can reassure my conscious brain it’s not going to happen, emotions aren’t that simple. In a February 2013 article, Justin Feinstein of the California Institute of Technology states, “We're still learning a lot about how the brain processes fear...”1 This complex emotion can trigger physiological changes such as muscle tension and a faster heartbeat.2 Likewise, it seems that physical actions such as doing squats can arouse feelings of fear. The amygdala, thalamus, hormones, and other parts of our nervous system just don’t respond to rational persuasion in an ideal way.

It’s not just weightlifting that can be frightening. The other day when I was swimming laps, little stabs of fear shot through me as I did the front crawl. It was the fear of drowning. Though I was only slightly more likely to drown in that pool than a shark is likely to drown in the ocean—it was five feet deep, relatively small, and had two lifeguards—the exertion combined with breathing only every four strokes made it feel otherwise. I’ve also experienced fear during sprinting workouts, when the act of running as fast as I can seems to make some part of me think I’m fleeing for my life from a leopard or feral pig or some other unfriendly beast.

If only laps were this serene

Beyond fear of bodily harm and death, exercise can make someone afraid of less tangible things. These fears include not measuring up to your standards, wasting time and resources, and looking foolish. Dying is scary, but so is the suspicion that everyone around you thinks you’re (literally) a big fat idiot.

So the only thing to do is be brave. As the WWI fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker said, “Courage is doing what you're afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared.” Squats, laps, and sprints don’t require nearly as much courage as flying war planes, but they do require some. That makes learning how to face your fears yet another benefit of regular exercise.

1. Sarah Zielinski, What Makes You Feel Fear?” NPR, last modified Feb. 4 2003, accessed Aug. 18, 2013,
2. “What happens inside your body when you get scared?” Discovery, n.d., accessed Aug. 18, 2013,  

Friday, August 2, 2013

Affluence and Austerity

Last night a friend and I discussed contentment and how it can accompany affluence or austerity. Right now I am working towards certain financial and material goals: a house, a larger emergency savings cushion, international travel, a decent retirement fund. Make no mistake—I very much want all of these things, with the house at the top of the list. And yet as I told my friend, the great thing is that I know I can be happy without any of them. As much as I want a house of my own, I could have a good life living in an apartment or someone else’s house. As much as I want a larger emergency cushion and the peace of mind that comes with it, I don’t have much of a cushion now, and life feels pretty good. (I do have people I can turn to in an emergency, though, or I might be singing a different tune.) I don’t believe material possessions, including financial savings, are inherently corrupting, but they aren’t essential to my happiness.

Today at the gym I realized these feelings apply to working out as well. I like working out at fitness centers, including fancy ones with lots of specialized equipment and attractive d├ęcor. As long as I can afford a gym membership, I will probably have one. I also like exercise DVDs, luxury pools, having an iPod to run with, and other fitness experiences that could be viewed as frills. But I don’t need any of those things to get a good workout or to enjoy exercising. Push-ups and many other body-weight exercises and stretches require no equipment and can be done virtually anywhere. I can swim in public lakes and run on public sidewalks and trails. I can be happy with the high life or a more humble existence, and what a valuable awareness that is.