I love studies that support my own understanding of how life works. Science has repeatedly picked my team when it comes to the benefits of being outdoors and the impact exercise has on mood and overall health and well being.
But it's easy to abstract the words "health" and "well being" into a state that exists over there, for proactive people. Those people — unlike me — understand how to invest, work our country's archaic health care system to their benefit and carve a moderate amount of time into their every-day schedule for heart rate acceleration under a sun that, for them, is always shining.
The sun, especially this past week in Southcentral Alaska, is elusive for me. I've flushed far more hours of my life down the toilet while on the phone with Aetna than I care to ponder. I have one of those investment apps on my phone, which feels like a kind of responsibility I consume to make myself feel like I have my act together when in reality I haven't checked it in over a month.
Yet I get outside and exercise as fiendishly as any addict. I'm not one of "those" proactive people. I don't read studies and then adjust my life accordingly. I just know that when I go outside I feel better, and when I don't I am a terrible, grouchy, sleepless mess. So the decision really takes care of itself.
For me, outdoor exercise is simply an escape hatch. My running shoes are a trap door I can sink my feet into whenever life gets too chaotic, which it consistently does.
Are the tasks at work flying faster than I can anticipate? Is my sister on my case about something I didn't or should do? Did I for some reason decide to take on an extracurricular project that sounded good after a glass of wine with a really convincing friend, but in reality is just one more thing that I can't think about until I'm physically in it?
I don't do well with overwhelm. I snap off. Stress makes me feel frayed on the one hand and totally numb on the other. Physical activity, particularly while breathing in fresh air, helps me put it all in perspective.
There is something in the monotony of repeated movement that helps me both physically and mentally reset. Getting my heart rate up eventually makes me feel good — after it's made me feel worse.
Somehow, though, even the feeling worse part is good. It's like the physical exertion matches the level of work demanded of me in life. When I can actually match that imagined pace, even during an activity that seems totally unrelated, it makes me feel like I'm working through something. I feel that sense of competency, and it brings me back into myself, one step at a time.
Then, eventually, there's that endorphin rush. There it is, science again. The endorphins seem to come in moments of sudden and fleeting clarity. If the arrival of "runner's high" made a noise, it would be a quick woosh. Here and then gone. But the flash is enough to work for. It's enough to know that clarity is out there and achievable. It feels damn good.
And it carries over after the hike, bike or run. Unlacing my sneakers and running up the stairs to shower, I inevitably feel re-set.
Of course, there's also the pull back to the stressful cacophony of demands. Unlike my imagined perfect person who reads the New York Times Wellness section religiously and maintains a perfectly balanced schedule, what awaits me after a run is chaos. It is chaos when I leave it; it's chaos when I return. But the break from it makes me able to see it a little more clearly from on high. I can break off pieces of the chaos. I can let some of it hiss past me.
So, I agree with all of those studies that show how outdoor exercise makes life better.
But even if science didn't arrive there with me, I'd still be fervently looking for the next reason to get outside. I'd still be cursing it a little at first, because it's difficult both to fit in with my life and it can feel difficult to work hard. But I know that I can't exist without it. Not well, anyway.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.