Tuesday, June 2, 2009


As we come upon the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his work On the Origin of the species, I find myself thinking about fitness and its psychological implications. I notice that my own implicit sense of adaptation entails being on point and being engaged. However, engagement is a complicated experience. Simply, where does one's focus land? Is the fittest the one who engages a goal without relenting or has a capacity to rest? Here, I am reminded of the classic tale of the tortoise and the hare. Our rabbit does rest and runs hard too. Yet, this haphazard fashion results in loss while the gentle persistence of the turtle affords a victory. In that regard, the pressure that the turtle feels – the gentle push of "slow and steady wins the race" – doesn't quite have the punch I first experience when I hear "survival of the fittest." So why is it that the turtle not only survives, but thrives in this lovely fable? What might evolutionary theory have to say?

According to Terrence Deacon, a professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at UC Berkeley, the fitness ideal of an unrelenting drive of "never give up" as necessary to success if not fitness itself may not be all that it is cracked up to be. Deacon is interested in what happens when such pressure is absent. To that end, he suggests that when the pressures of the environment that I think of when I imagine some early giraffe straining to get leaves that are just out of reach are absent, that unexpected and synergistic effects might arise. In this regard, I hear him saying not only that when leaves are in reach and plentiful that giraffe's have it easier, but that when we are not stressed we can be creative. Now the rub, as a highly creative coffee drinking species, far from being an exemplar of fitness, Deacon sees what has been called a "degenerate ape".

Maybe this is overstated – degenerate ape indeed. True, there are couch potatoes. But, there are also athletes and monks. Currently, our television affords a reminder that includes spin off books singing praises to the spirit of get up and move to those resting on the couch. The computer also applauds such efforts for sedentary members of the point and click set. The sheer intensity of such reality based programming leads me to wonder if it is a manifestation of some sort related to a correlation between a poor economy and poor health. If only the DOW could shake its groove thing! Yet like the bear of Wall Street, I find myself thinking about the longevity of the turtle in comparison to the flashiness of that loser of a rabbit. The turtle, I think inhabits the space in which pressure has lifted. Unlike the stressed out rabbit, the turtle does not crash. The turtle demonstrates an even handedness that I think renders the rabbit in degenerate terms. The only thing degenerate about the turtle is a lack of the stress and tension. It may be that an ability to not be the reactive rabbit but a steadfast turtle who can tolerate a shifting world without a hyper-vigilant response might well be a sign of fitness or a mature fitness. We can lead our lives like the erratic rabbit. However, the turtle also appears to enjoy a good race, and we know that exercise helps mood and longevity.

This seems like enough for me to turn off the television, shut down the laptop and get outside. However, it's not always as easy as Nike's – Just do it. We often turn the television back on and watch someone else attempt to lose weight. What of our own motivation? In September of 2008, I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by Robert Kegan, Ph.D. Kegan is a Co-Director of the Change Leadership Group, and he addressed the difficulties found when trying to change – anything. Like many a good speaker on motivation, Kegan led a group of several hundred in an exercise about change. Over the past year, I had come to tire of my complaining about lack of exercise in one too many peer conversations. In Kegan's exercise, I began with pen and paper and in dialogue with the person seated next to me to examine my competing commitments to exercise. I work and have a family. Woops. Life is complicated. Getting back in shape was going to require not only thinking outside the box that had become my life, but changing that box without breaking it.

I know a lot about fitness. After all, I used to take long mountain bike rides when I lived on the west coast. In graduate school, having moved east, I took up running and yoga with weight training. I hadn't really had to reflect on the fact that I stopped biking because of the time it required to get a work out similar to what I found in running and weight training. That time bind had been easily solved. Especially with the help of good community, it was practically easy for running to find its own place in my life. I did not have to reflect on what allowed me to evolve or change my best practices. Yes, I realize I've shifted from speaking about evolution in biological species terms to psychological individual terms. That is an occupational hazard.

When I found that my ability to run consistently was threatened, I began to feel a bit, well rabbit like. Kegan's exercise revealed to me that there was good reason for this. After all, I'm motivated for work and family life to go well. I also like to do other stuff besides break a sweat when I have a few minutes. I wasn't certain that I could find a solution. I certainly did not yet have the calm of the turtle regarding my feelings about my being out of shape. Acceptance was not easily forthcoming.

One thing I like about psychoanalysis is that it clearly states that our motivations are multiple and that in everything we do there is compromise. To that end, being a psychologist helped quite a lot. I didn't expect to find an easy feeling of turtle grace before acting. I knew that would only come later, and that such experience would ebb and flow and require care if such a flux was to be maintained. So, I began taking this long view of the turtle seriously while slowly making small changes. I began to think that I could actively shift the 'selection pressure' I felt in my daily life. I remembered reading in Runner's World some years back about the benefit of cooking in advance. So, I put a freezer in the basement to store good food cooked in advance. I found my old orthotics, and made an appointment to get them tuned up. I found an old chin-up bar and mounted it in a door frame. I wasn't certain what else I was going to do. However, I continued to believe that I was moving in a direction that would make change possible, and like the turtle - allowed uncertainty to be a companion without becoming anxious and erratic like the rabbit.

So, while enjoying that my son had discovered that he could browse the stacks on his own at our local library, I began flipping through a copy of BookPage one afternoon this past winter. I wasn't looking for an exercise book, but there it was – a book about short duration exercise. In addition to some easy cynicism, this piqued my interest. I ordered a copy. I was a little disappointed to find that the book's target audience was soccer moms who work. While I am a parent who works, um, I'm a guy – looking good in a little black dress simply wasn't one of my goals. Back to being a psychologist again: I hear clients talking about Michelle Obama's arms, and I even found myself thinking that although he is a guy too, that Pete Cerqua was smart to market his book to women. I've read enough work by Carol Gilligan and I also live on this planet. The argument that women are simply more relational and less rigid is commonly found. While my own interest in gender theory is apparent, it was trumped by my own need for survival. I know the odds – women get depressed and seek treatment – men drink – was that a beer in my hand or my running shoes??! A simple binary of degenerate ape or turtle left me thinking that this was no time for gender essentialism or workout rigidity.

Not being an essentialist, I lead with my enjoyment of core and cardio. I began to play with an integration of Cerqua's program with my yoga knowledge base and found a ten minute routine that I could do three times a week on the days "I don't have time to exercise." Although I had read about single set strength training before, I was suspicious that this would not amount to anything. I did not see any other options that were forthcoming. As I began this program, a colleague started a team - Psychologist's for healthy habits through a local program – Shape Up Rhode Island. The program's foundation is time spent walking, and with the arrival of a pedometer and a journal, it was time to lace up my running shoes. Making the commitment to track each step for a few months made a difference. First, it showed me that on long work days, I was sedentary. Ugh. My weekly workout began to look like this: core routine three times a week, running and weight machines once a week, and two other runs – preferably outdoors with use of my chin up bar after running. In total I was exercising three hours and thirty minutes a week. The thirty minutes of core work spread out over three days afforded glue that left me feeling that the benefits of my short runs over very few days wasn't lost. The proof of course was in the pudding – in addition to gaining upper body muscle mass and improving as a runner, I lost 10 pounds in three months.

I feel lighter and happier. Not too many weeks ago, I went out for a run on a Sunday. I had forgotten that the Cox Sports Marathon would pass through my neighborhood. Yet there were these two guys with red flags around the corner from my house. I noticed them before the front runners arrived. By the time I found time to lace up and get out for my own run, mid packers were running by. I went out for my usual five miler, and found that about 20 minutes of my route overlapped with the marathon course. I knew from having run a marathon just what these folks were up to, and I enjoyed their company for the two miles that my route overlapped their course. Running with these marathoners rendered feelings of having found myself amidst a festival of life – a life in which the steadiness of the turtle finishes the race. Another marathon had come and gone – this one, I hadn't run – but it had afforded its own quiet victory – not quite the strong satisfaction I remembered from crossing the 26.2 line in 1999, but a– more a gentle reminder to keep pushing – slowly, but pushing nonetheless.

Later that day, while shopping for a pair of Croc's for my son at our local shoe store, I happened to notice that my favorite running shoes were on sale. They are still waiting as my older pair (same shoe!) continues to have some mid sole cushion, but after the upcoming 5K this weekend, I plan to begin breaking them in. Let's hear it for the turtle and survival of the fittest.