Exercise your demons

A while ago Matthew asked if I had any thoughts on exercise in the same vein as my posts on dieting.

To be honest, I don’t really. Exercise has always been a bit of an enigma to me.

But in recent years I’ve come to realise this is not a moral failing but a physical one. My body hasn’t been moving efficiently or easily, and this makes physical activity inherently more demanding.

In the past I would say my only strength was in wearily persisting at some low-demand, monotonous exercise like walking or riding. Anything more demanding was simply beyond my capabilities.

Running? Surely you jest.

My subjective experience of exercise was like that stage you arrive at when assembling a very large tent, and you have to hold onto it carefully at several different points to prevent the whole thing collapsing in on itself. It’s the feeling of parts that want to go in different directions, but shouldn’t, like watching a group exercise descend into chaos for want of a leader.

Looking into muscle anatomy in recent weeks has helped immensely, and I only wish I’d done it sooner. Ironically, I used to pride myself on my persistence. But 17 years in a martial art with an achingly poor rate of progression should have tipped me off sooner. A less stubborn person might have caved in much sooner, realised there was something fundamentally wrong, and sought help for it.

Or maybe not…maybe they would have just given up and stuck to casual walking and other less challenging activities?

I can’t claim to have really pulled myself up by my bootstraps, but I can at least stand a little taller (literally) knowing where my shoulders are supposed to be, how my joints are supposed to work, and why every ancillary exercise I’ve tried has just seemed somehow awfully off.

So my view of exercise is changing: I used to wonder why people would, for example, run a lot. Was it so they could eat more? In that case I’d rather eat less. Was it simply in order to increase their stamina? What’s the point, if you only use that stamina to run more?

But if you don’t feel like a jumble of broken parts being thrown around inside a box, then even running has a certain pleasure to it. It actually feels good to move the body efficiently at speed. It’s hard work, true; but there’s just no comparison between working the body hard in the right way, with efficiency, and working the body in the wrong way altogether.

I’m beginning (very slowly) to use exercise more now as a diagnostic and remedial tool: stretching, strengthening, and learning better ways to move.

The melancholic posture


Melancholics are said to be prone to ailments, and Conrad Hock notes that “the gait of the melan­cholic is slow and heavy“. We no longer believe in the Greek medical theory from which the four temperaments originate, yet there are some physiological elements that correspond to the otherwise psychological descriptors of each temperament.

For the melancholic, introversion, fatigue,  anxiety, depression and fear of humiliation all contribute to postural problems that in turn exacerbate the psychological aspects in a kind of psychosomatic feedback loop.

Common defensive or submissive postural cues include internal rotation of the shoulders and forward head posture. Forward head posture is a common complaint, regardless of temperament, for people who spend a lot of time at computers. It puts strain on the upper back muscles, which must work harder to hold the head stable at such a distance from the body.

Fatigue in these muscles feels terrible. Yet for many of us these muscles are chronically fatigued and overburdened. In addition, such a posture subconsciously projects a lack of confidence, disengaging and suppressing the chest and the powerful muscles of the lower back and abdomen – the ‘core muscles’ that provide postural support and strength in everyday life and which are increasingly viewed as indispensable in good athletic performance.

Exacerbating this bad posture are the gut-related symptoms of anxiety. Stomach pain, bloating, and nausea discourage the activation of core muscles which would put pressure on the abdomen. At the same time, anxiety can cause abdominal muscle tension, albeit not the kind of tension that would contribute to effective use of the core muscles.

So while the upper body slumps and collapses defensively, the lower torso is disengaged and unable to provide support. The upper and lower limbs my function fine in isolation, but lack the appropriate grounding in a unified torso.

Correcting postural weaknesses

It can be extremely difficult to correct these problems without good hands-on guidance. Part of the problem is that there are multiple variables and it can be difficult to correct elements in isolation.  For example, the instruction “put your shoulders back” is based on a difference in appearance between a good posture and a bad one. But the instruction is misleading in many cases because the appropriate correction to internally rotated shoulders is scapular retraction. Simply pushing your shoulders back will fix nothing and may even increase muscular tension. “Retract your scapulae” is better advice, but it still needs to be specified that the scapulae are to be retracted by tightening of the muscles between and below them, with the understanding that habit has left these muscles lengthened and weakened, so it will take time and practice to strengthen them.

“Suck your stomach in” is another good example. Sucking in your stomach is a part of the process that tightens core abdominal muscles, but the instruction is easily misinterpreted, with people sucking “up” the abdomen and lifting the rib cage, or failing to tighten the abdomen with the kind of “pushing out” that really activates the bracing effect of the core muscles.

Making corrections like these is an ongoing process, requiring careful research.  We’re fortunate that a number of exercise disciplines have come online with professionals and enthusiastic amateurs offering a range of insights.  I’ve found, for example, useful material on tightening the core from powerlifters. If it works for someone lifting hundreds of kilograms then it can’t be too far wrong for daily life.  Do your research across a range of resources, be thorough, and of course be careful.  There might be only one “right” way to do it, but there are numerous ways to get it wrong, and the precise solution or correction may vary from person to person.  There’s also some flat-out contradictory advice out there.

Postural correction can also be frustrating to a melancholic because we love singular, all-encompassing solutions, and there are plenty of people willing to push an isolated exercise or postural element as the key to the whole puzzle of posture.  We’re also a bit afraid of hard work, and the idea of gradual improvement or slow retraining can frustrate us, especially when we’re not entirely sure that the instructions are adequate.

But the logic of posture does meet a kind of ideal in its own right, and the pleasure of stretching muscles that have, perhaps for decades, been locked in inefficient and exhausting positions makes this enterprise well worthwhile.  After all, we might never be completely free of worries, anxieties, and all-consuming existential despair, but breaking the physical side of the vicious cycle can provide a real sense of relief from the psychological side.  The term ‘body language’ is misleading in this sense: you can tell lies about how confident you feel, but a good posture feels ‘confident’ because it is strong, and a bad posture feels weak because it really is weak.







What makes you happy?

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For melancholics happiness requires a reason.  We’re so used to circumstances not being right, not being favourable. We live in a habitual state of wary discontent as though things are not great, but they could get worse at any moment and we want to be prepared for when they do.

This habitual state of discontented wariness is so consistent that although it seems like a prudent response to one’s circumstances at any given moment, in reality it is just a default setting; a mood in search of a justification.If your mood remains unchanged despite the passage of years and unending variations in your circumstances, at some point you have to accept that the only constant is you; something in you or about you is determined to inhabit this mood and remain in it for your own, perhaps subconscious, reasons, or through the sheer inertia of past experience.

Either way, if you find over the course of years that you inhabit a negative mood regardless of circumstances, there is no real reason why you couldn’t instead train yourself to inhabit a more positive mood instead.  If you’re always feeling worried, independent of whatever is going on around you, then you might as well teach yourself to always feel relieved, since it clearly has no bearing on your actual circumstances or outcomes either way.

I know for a fact that when all my problems are solved, I’ll create new problems to worry about.  If I’m always looking for faults I’ll be sure to find them. But this experience of constant fault-finding is wearisome and unpleasant, and countless times in my life I’ve sworn I’ve had enough of it.

So in theory I’ve now had more than enough of it, yet it persists because I have never had the right combination of circumstances, motivation, and clarity to do something about it.  It is not sufficient to simply realise that there is something wrong with your attitude on such a deep level; the accretion of this attitude took many years and the retraining of it will likewise take consistent effort.

After all, your mood is more than just a state of mind, it is also deeply ingrained in your whole body.  Habitual muscular tension, poor posture, and a variety of biochemical processes interact with mood both passively and actively.  Depression might make you slouch, but slouching can also make you feel depressed.

Posture can be retrained, habitual tension can become habitual relaxation, so why can’t an habitually negative mood become an habitually positive one.  Ultimately if there is no real reason to feel bad, what more reason do you need to start learning to feel good – to feel happy for merely being alive, and to genuinely appreciate all the wonderful things in your life?