The Healthy Addiction

I tend to write articles about inner happiness, the psychological source of our experience, following your dreams, and other nonsense.

This week I’d like to mix it up, because there are no rules. I’d like to talk about another one of my passions. It’s a topic that most people have a lot of feelings about, for better or worse.


The healthy addiction

To start, I’ll mention how unhealthy addiction works.

You take a drug and it gets you high. After the high there is a come-down, in which you usually feel worse than normal (hangover, feeling burnt, withdrawal). Afterwards you slowly return to your baseline feeling state. It looks something like this.

In addiction, you take the drug often enough that you never return to the baseline emotional state. Your body relies more and more on the drug to feel OK, and over time you depend on it to feel normal. The baseline drops and anytime you’re not on the drug you feel incredibly unpleasant, like the lowest graph on the above link.

I used to wonder, why isn’t there a drug we can take that first makes us feel unpleasant, but then raises our baseline state over time as our bodies adapt and rebound?

Until I realized, there is! That’s exactly what exercise does.

Exercise itself is at least slightly unpleasant. We are putting our muscles and our minds through stress as we push ourselves to go a little further than we thought, lift a little bit more than we did last week. That’s one of the reasons we feel resistance to going to the gym, getting out for that run, and staying committed to them long term.

However, what I and many I’ve talked to have noticed, is that when you complete your prescribed exercise routine, you never feel worse than you did before it. Maybe you feel the same, but never worse. And sometimes you feel way better!

And over time, as you keep taking your positive drug, you get stronger and stronger. You have more and more natural energy. There are cognitive and neurotrophic benefits to exercise.

It’s the opposite of what happens in an unhealthy addiction — there’s an initial surge of pleasure, but over time we drop lower and lower. With exercise, there’s initial pain, but over time we rise higher and higher!

And have you heard of the runner’s high?

Supposedly, as your conditioning and endurance capacity improves, you need to run further in order to experience the same post-run endorphin rush.

It’s just like developing a tolerance to a drug — at first, one dose gets you high. Over time, you need two, three, or more times the dose (of mileage) to get you the same effect.

Why do it?

We all know the common reasons to exercise. They have to do with physical health and appearance. While those are important, we are constantly regaled by them.

I’ll skip those ones. I’d rather focus on the emotional and even spiritual reasons to exercise. I encourage you to look for these deeper reasons for yourself as you exercise, because they’ll sustain you longer than superficial goals like having a better body. I’m not saying that’s a bad goal, just that there are other worthwhile ones to emphasize.

I like to trail run. One major reason is that I feel integrated with nature. For some portions of my runs, my thoughts slow down, and my awareness is entirely in my body. I lose my sense of being “Jock” and feel united with the gorgeous land I’m traversing.

Another thing that makes me feel alive when I run on trails is the element of exploration. There’s nothing I love more than picking out a new park or set of trails, striking out, and just exploring. Not knowing where they’ll lead, what I’ll see, or how long it will take is invigorating. I have no doubt that if someone forced me to run the same distance on roads or in town, I simply wouldn’t run. Trail running is a different sport to me.

And lastly, I run to test myself. I’m training for the Squamish 50k, a roving mountain ultramarathon with 8500 feet of elevation gain. Why?

To find out what my limits are.

The journey of preparation for it is a constant confrontation of my perceptions of who I am and of what I’m capable. I have to continually redefine what I mean when I say “long run,” the most important part of my weekly training regimen. When I started, 8 miles was long for me. Now, 18 is long for me. By the summer, I’ll run a 26 mile long run. And the race itself is even longer. Every time the word “long” gets redefined, I also get redefined.

(Part of that is that I get to spend “longer” amounts of time eating.)


And to make sure I don’t ever get cocky, I am constantly reminded of the elite ultrarunners who conquer the same distances I do but in much less time, at altitude, and with a greater elevation gain. Some of them are motivated by histories of depression and addiction, and running is their salvation. The reasons they run go as deep as the very essence of who they are.

I don’t need to be as good as them — I just want to see how good I can be.

It’s challenging, but so rewarding. Testing myself and reaching new heights is exhilarating. Take it from this 100-year old sprinter:


One of my best friends gets the exact same thrill I get from running, but through weightlifting.

It’ll be a little different for everyone. The common denominator is finding reward in challenging yourself and overcoming those challenges. And rejoicing in the wonders of being a physical being with a body.

My intention in this article isn’t to try to motivate you to get exercising, but to share some of powerful reasons I (and maybe you too) feel called to spend an inordinate amount of time doing something that has no glory, no monetary gain, no recognition, and no benefit to other people.

What’s your favorite kind of exercise? What do you love about it?

2 thoughts on The Healthy Addiction

  1. Like you said, there are many reasons to exercise. I exercise in part to reclaim my identity. As a kid, I knew myself as an active, athletic guy. I got away from that a bit as an adult. I also smoked for many years, so exercise is an ongoing process of healing for me. I ALWAYS feel better when I’m done, and get ticked off if I go too long without exercise of some kind (even brisk walking).

    Thanks for the reflection and good luck with your training.

  2. Thanks. I like the connection of exercise to healing. That’s really the potential it has for everyone I think.

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