Exercise Makes You Smarter… So What?

There is a growing body of research that identifies the positive effects of moderate physical exercise on working memory, mental flexibility, self-control, and response precision.¹ My relentless researching has also revealed that cardiovascular fitness increases “sexual functioning.”² But that’s beside the point.

At the end of the day, we all intuitively know that exercise makes us feel better, and when we feel better, we think better. Unfortunately, knowing that increased blood-flow from cardio improves episodic memory doesn’t necessarily make us go for a run. Information often doesn’t impact motivation.

So, I’m going to try a different approach. I’m not going to tell you the facts. I’m going to tell you a story. My story about how I jointly found endurance sports and my path to academia. I hope to convince you to prioritize fitness in your life, not through references to scientific articles, but through feeling. In the immortal words of Dorothea Brooke: “you would have to feel with me, else you would never know.”³

[1] See Fernandes, Rafael M., et al. “The Effects of Moderate Physical Exercise on Adult Cognition: A Systematic Review.” Frontiers in Physiology, vol. 9, 2018, p. 667, and Hötting, Kirsten, and Brigitte Röder. “Beneficial Effects of Physical Exercise on Neuroplasticity and Cognition.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, vol. 37, no. 9, Part B, Nov. 2013

[2] Jiannine, Lia M. “An Investigation of the Relationship between Physical Fitness, Self-Concept, and Sexual Functioning.” Journal of Education and Health Promotion, vol. 7, 2018, p. 57.

[3] Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Penguin, 1994, p. 822.


 

Let me take you back to the summer of 2013, before my senior year of college, when the State Department awarded me an elite scholarship to study Arabic in Oman. They chose me because of my brain. A brain. That’s how I had always defined myself. It’s not that I didn’t think of myself as strong or attractive. Tacitly, I suppose I felt secure on both of those front. I had competed at national championships in volleyball and objectively considered myself aesthetically appealing. But really, I viewed my body as but a convenient vehicle for my glorious brain. I loved being a brain.

I was totally confident that if I thought enough about something–put in the necessary amount of time–then I could absolutely accomplish my brainiac goal. I developed this belief early on… When I was in fifth grade my teacher began reading us an abridged children’s version of The Odyssey, telling us that someday, when we were in high school, we would read the real thing. Well I wasn’t about to wait for high school to discover the wonders of the real Odyssey. So I made my mom take me to Barnes and Nobles and I picked up a copy myself. When my teacher saw me reading it, she said it

would be, “Too difficult for me to understand.” Well, I read the whole thing, very slowly, looking up every strange word in the dictionary and writing out a character list to reference when I got confused by all those long names. When I finished, I wrote a five page book report for my teacher to prove I understood every bit. Ha! I loved my little fledgling brain.

So ten years later, the State Department sent an energetic brain over to Oman. I was confident in my ability to focus and work hard to learn the beautiful intricacies of Arabic. My brain was hungry for this new challenge.

994168_10201032678115704_422000648_nYet after the initial euphoria of travel to a new land wore off, I had the sinking realization that my glorious brain was malfunctioning. My Arabic was bad. Really bad. In fact, for the first time in my life I was the lowest level student in my class. I tried to tell myself that this was a good thing. “It’ll give you empathy when you’re a teacher someday!” I told myself pragmatically. Or, “You’ll be the most improved at the end of two months!” my indefatigable optimism cooed. So for another week I smiled maniacally and bit my tongue whenever English began to slip out. But I was becoming increasingly panicked. I woke up dreading the day, nausea mounting on the bus to class. My peers chatted pleasantly around me in their broken but passable Arabic. But for me, producing anything that sounded remotely like “language” felt like shards of glass between my teeth. With the vocabulary of a toddle, my personality vanished when I spoke Arabic. I couldn’t discuss foreign policy or philosophy. I could barely say that I was hungry! So, I couldn’t show that I had a brain. And, increasingly, I began to feel like I didn’t have one at all. And without a brain, I didn’t have a self. Because I was only a brain.

I’m not a wallower; never have been. So after a week of bolting to the bathroom in between classes to release a flood of tears, I decided something had to change. And that something wasn’t my Arabic. I was already doing everything possible to learn that. So I broadened my scope. What if I became more than just a brain?Yet after the initial euphoria of travel to a new land wore off, I had the sinking realization that my glorious brain was malfunctioning. My Arabic was bad. Really bad. In fact, for the first time in my life I was the lowest level student in my class. I tried to tell myself that this was a good thing. “It’ll give you empathy when you’re a teacher someday!” I told myself pragmatically. Or, “You’ll be the most improved at the end of two months!” my indefatigable optimism cooed. So for another week I smiled maniacally and bit my tongue whenever English began to slip out. But I was becoming increasingly panicked. I woke up dreading the day, nausea mounting on the bus to class. My peers chatted pleasantly around me in their broken but passable Arabic. But for me, producing anything that sounded remotely like “language” felt like shards of glass between my teeth. With the vocabulary of a toddle, my personality vanished when I spoke Arabic. I couldn’t discuss foreign policy or philosophy. I could barely say that I was hungry! So, I couldn’t show that I had a brain. And, increasingly, I began to feel like I didn’t have one at all. And without a brain, I didn’t have a self. Because I was only a brain.

I had heard one of the professors at the university say there was a footpath that extended from the road near my apartment complex into the mountains. I got the crazy idea that I was going to go for a run on that path. This was a crazy idea for a couple of reasons. The first was that I had never run outside before a day in my life. Maybe in middle school PE when they made you do the mile. But as an adult? No way. I played volleyball so I wouldn’t have to run long distances! But there were no gyms in the small town I was living in. So I had to make do with what I had. And what I had was a sketchy footpath leading into the mountains.

Ok, so the second reason why this was crazy was that I normally wore a headscarf and abbayah (those long black robes). I didn’t have to, legally, but I certainly felt more comfortable that way and garnered more respect from my Omani peers and colleagues. But, a headscarf wearing black robed figure plodding along by herself on a mountain path would certainly be an anomaly. Perhaps even cause some trouble. And besides, the thought of running with all that extra fabric sounded pretty wretched. So I slicked my long hair into a very tight low bun, put on extra large men’s athletic clothes, and looked at myself appraisingly in the mirror. I might just pass as a dude…

So late that afternoon I set off on my very first outdoor run. Immediately, sweat started dripping from my forehead as my feet pounded against the rocky ground. I almost turned my ankle half a dozen times as I ran faster and faster on the uneven surface. But it felt amazing! I discovered this whole new part of myself… lungs that filled, arms that kept time for my striking feet, quads that burned with an ever-increasing desire to propel this magical new body forward. The self- doubt and frustration that had been mounting to levels of unbearable panic suddenly vanished. Thoughts vanished. I only felt–every nerve of my awakening body. And I saw–the sun setting behind the craggy mountains. A blaze of beautiful, natural glory that no one else was witnessing but me from that remote mountain pass.

1001774_10201077109266455_477054706_nI ran for an hour, until the sun set behind the mountains. By the time I made it back to my room every inch of my newfound body was in agony. But I was radiant and smiled for the first time in weeks.

After that, I ran every evening I was in Oman. And not only did my pace get faster and my legs feel stronger, but my confidence increased tenfold. I even started making progress in my Arabic classes. I stopped crying; stopped despairing at my defunct brain power. Because I had found something else besides my brain that made me proud. I had a body that I could train to do pretty incredible things too. I may not be able to mentally master Omani amiya in a week. Willpower can only get you so far when it comes to exercising the brain. But my body brimmed with unbounded potential. Physically, I discovered that I could endure anything. I even ran on the day that my town made international headlines for being the hottest city on the planet (134 degrees F). Ok, so maybe that wasn’t the best decision. But I rehydrated afterwards. And more importantly, that impossibly hot run made me think: if I can do this then I can do anything. Even learn amiya.

When I returned to the US two months later I decided to sign up for a marathon. I was applying to graduate school at the time and all my self-doubts from the start of Oman were returning. Was my brain good enough to get into school? What in the world would I do if I didn’t get in? That last thought terrified me the most. But when I was running, my fears vanish

ed. “An application committee can tell me I can’t come to their school… But no one can tell me I can’t run a marathon,” became my motto.

Five months later, I finished the Arizona Rock n Roll marathon with a massive grin across my face (it was permanently there for 26.2 miles). And a month later, I found out I got into my dream program at UCLA for a PhD in English literature.
1005920_10202529896465227_1859516735_nFor a year running had been my coping mechanism, a way to help me feel confident when I was so full of doubt. But somewhere along the way I had gained the confidence I always sought. I didn’t need to run to feel good. I felt good and wanted to run as an extension of that feeling.

And that was when I realized: I’m not just a brain and I’m not just a body. I’m a complete being. And happiness comes when you’re a whole; when all parts of yourself are in harmonious balance.

So, going off to grad school, I didn’t just want to be a brain anymore. I wanted to be whole. Well, not just be whole, really. I don’t think we’re ever whole. I think we’re always striving towards wholeness. There’s always another angle of the self to cultivate. Always a way to incorporate different aspects of the self into a unified being. That’s what I set off to do by training for my first triathlon. When I started I could barely swim two laps of the pool and sitting on a bike for over 40 minutes hurt my butt. Gaining these new skills was a daily challenge, and a daily joy. I was becoming even more aware of my body, and synthesizing it with my brain. I started reading books on exercise physiology, nutrition, and training protocols. I acquired a heart rate monitor and delved into the biohacking world of self-quantification. Me, doing math?! I was an English PhD yet suddenly words and numbers began making an appearance in my reading. I was becoming even more whole.

I competed in my first sprint triathlon (700 meter swim, 15 mile bike, and 3.2 mile run) in September, a few weeks before starting school. And, amazingly, I took second in my age group. I was hooked. I started training for a half Ironman and set my sights on the famously challenging Wildflower Long Course (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run… with almost 4000 feet of elevation gain on the bike and nearly 1000 feet on the run). All throughout winter and spring quarters, I trained relentlessly. 6AM swims before seminar started at 9; my fellow students would shake their heads and smile at my wet hair at the start of class. Afternoon “sufferfest” sessions on the bike to get an adrenaline spike before hours of reading. I was committed. With a scrupulously regimented schedule I was determined to take the academic and triathlon worlds by storm.13645256_10209233163122704_5042770057061814069_n

So, during the last mile of my Wildflower Race (after passing my amazing parents who cheered ceaselessly from the sidelines) I started to cry. Not because my feet were bleeding from blisters, but because I was so proud of myself for completing this seemingly impossible feat (or so it had seemed to me a year ago). For the first time, I thought, “Wow, I have a glorious body.” Not because I’m tall and slender – what contemporary US culture has arbitrarily determined “beautiful”. No, I realized my body is glorious because it’s an expression of my self. Every little ripple of muscle is a testament to my hard work on the trails, on the bike, in the pool, in the gym. But it’s not even about that – looking fit, I mean. It’s about hearing the wind ripping in your ears as you descend a mountain on the bike. It’s about the heat of the sun on your cheeks when you’re running the trial. The initial gasp from the frigid water when you dunk your face into the ocean. It’s, for a moment, feeling without thought. And then it’s thinking about the feeling. Being a body. And then becoming a body with a brain.

All right, so at this point you might be thinking, “Aren’t you in grad school? Doesn’t all this training detract from time that should be spent earning your PhD?” Not at all! That’s what I’m getting at here. Having a body shouldn’t be in competition with having a brain. Every day, I strive to synthesize these two modes of being so that my body makes my brain better and vice versa. Training for Ironman has actually made me a better student of English literature. Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. Pay attention to what “feels” right to you. In triathlon this means being aware of your breathing, perceived exertion, and monitoring aches and pains. In academia this means – as one of my professor’s so elegantly said – “following the rudder of your idiosyncrasies”. Pursue ideas that interest you. Drop the areas that don’t. Don’t just try to work in a field that’s “hot” at the moment, because it probably won’t be anymore by the time you publish your dissertation.
  2. Expose yourself to jargon – even when you don’t get it. Jargon is frustrating and takes a long time to learn BUT with lots of repetition you’ll suddenly start figuring out what people are talking about. In the first months of grad school my head was reeling with references to big shot theorists and their fancy theories: Bhaktin’s chronotope, Adorno’s late style, DeCerteau’s dérivée. At the same time, the acronyms of triathlon were jumbling up in my mind: FTP test, monitoring HRV, MAF test, VO2 max, LT. I was confused every day. But, what I didn’t realize was that I was becoming less confused every day. The more you hear something, or read it, the more familiar it becomes. And, a year later, when writing this talk, I realize, “Hey, I actually do know what this stuff means!”
  3. Surround yourself with high-achievers. My roommate in the first two years of grad school, Jessica, a fellow Victorianist and all around brilliant scholar, won a fellowship to develop an article for publication over the summer. I didn’t. And I was pretty disappointment. But watching Jessica work day in and day out made me want to work too. So, rather than being bitter about not winning the award I decided to write an article anyway and try to get it published too. Similarly, when you train with people above your level, you will do things you never imagined were possible. For me this happened when I showed up to a group bike ride on a whim just after submitting my final paper of the quarter. I was feeling pretty darn good with that paper done, but didn’t think I could hang for the full 85 mile ride. My plan was to only go part of the way. I had never ridden more than 70 miles before and I had been resting for several weeks to recover from the Wildflower Race. However, the riders turned out to be a really welcoming group of guys and my competitive instinct kicked in so that I couldn’t bear to turn around like I planned. I ended up doing some 92 miles; the last twenty of which were absolute agony. I might very well have Ubered home – bike and all – if one of the riders hadn’t stuck with me the whole way back. It’s much harder to wimp out when someone else is watching!
  4. Train the will to suffer. I don’t think people suffer enough these days. We want to make everything easy and comfy… Don’t read the whole book, just the introduction. Or better yet, just mine the bibliography. Drive to work and pay for a convenient parking spot, or take one of those silly motorized scooters that have taken over LA. Heaven forbid we walk anywhere these days! Now I’m not advocating suffering for the sake of suffering. But teaching yourself to embrace discomfort and do something difficult for a long period of time is a valuable skill. This, more than anything else, I think is what makes you progress towards becoming a whole person. But the caveat to that is…
  5. Don’t overtrain. I’m all about the endurance activities… a 140.6 kilometer race and a six- year PhD program certainly represent the long haul. But you can’t be working or working out incessantly. Both the brain and the body need rest in order to make improvements. Don’t neglect the recovery days in your training protocol or the vacations from your work schedule. Muscles and creativity flourish in the interlude of taxing sessions of activity.
  6. It’s not worth holding the diploma or standing on the podium if no one is there to cheer you on. Both grad school and triathlon can be isolating activities. Sometimes you need to hole yourself up in a corner of the library for days on end to finish an article. Or in the buildup to an A race you need to incorporate hours of long bike rides alone at the crack of dawn before the rest of the normal world is awake just so you can get the necessary training in before going to work. And then you’re too exhausted by the end of the day to even think about meeting your non-triathlete friends for happy hour. Sometimes, you have to sacrifice social time to hunker down and get the work done. But there has to be a limit. Wholeness requires a social context. The self flourishes in the company of others. And I certainly wouldn’t be the self I am today without the endless support of my family and friends. You know, the people who woke up at 3am to make me breakfast before a big race (thanks, Dad!), or deck my hair out in warrior braids (thanks Sabrina!), or scream my name at the finish line (there are too many people to thank on that one.) These are the people you celebrate with when the race or workday are over. And, in the end, it’s the quality of these relationships that matter most.

This is an ongoing list in my mind, one that I add to whenever I find a new connection between the academic and endurance sport worlds. It’s an important practice, I think, to unite my passions and continue to grow as a complete being. I don’t just want to be a brain or a body. I’m constantly mindful of how these dimensions interact with each other. And I’m always asking, how can I unite them more fully?

That’s why I made FitLit. My mission is to show academics and other professionals how fitness goals can immensely benefit their career aspirations and personal well-being. On the other hand, my message to my fellow athletes out there is that reading high-quality literature, not just training books and biographies, can make you a stronger athlete and person. Keep reading this website and tuning in to the podcast, and I’ll prove it to you.

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PhD Candidate in English at UCLA, Ironman athlete, outdoor enthusiast, and hammock extraordinaire with a guilty penchant for over-priced health foods.

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