I’ve been flexing my muscles ever since I was ten. That’s when I hauled home a record from Disneyland, put the needle on a record, and started to dance. That album, titled “Exercise with the Jungle Book,” had Baloo the Bear leading me in early 80’s aerobics (Baloo had a little extra junk in the trunk, so I liked him better than Jane Fonda.) Thirty-two years later, I’m still on the hunt for that next best workout. Be it abs, glutes, or core, I’ll try anything that keeps me engaged and brings results. So when I discovered a little-known, master muscle that boosts all my exercise efforts, I got excited.
What is this mystery strength, and why don’t we hear more about it?
To answer that question, I’ll share a story often told and retold around these parts, especially during winter. In fact, it was winter in Butte — our highest Montana town – at Berkeley Pit, our deepest toxic wastewater site (locals call it Berkeley Lake.) Butte’s an old copper mining town perched atop the Continental Divide. It weathers blizzards that would otherwise breeze over lower elevations. One whiteout evening in ’95, a large flock of migrating geese decided to take refuge from a storm. Scanning for water, they spotted Berkeley Pit. They landed, free from icy winds. The next morning, Butte awoke to a sad site. Almost 350 winter-white geese lay dead, floating atop the toxic waters of Berkeley Pit.
Not long after the geese tragedy, a chemist returned to the pit and pulled a rope its waters. It was covered in green slime – life. Researchers at Montana Tech identified the slime as algae. Not just any algae, though. This plant could neutralize acid and absorb heavy metals. It literally thrived in Berkeley Pit. Theoretically — if scientists can scale up the algae’s metabolism to Berkeley Pit size – a Superfund site could become just like any other clean mountain lake in Montana.
But there’s more to the story, and it’s this surprise ending that reveals the mystery muscle.
The only other place those algae have ever been found is in the guts of geese. Their sacrifice gave birth to new life. Honestly, if I had been there, I would have been too sad and full of guilt to believe such a miracle. After seeing all those geese dead, any hope arising from those toxic waters would have been the furthest thing from my mind. Nonetheless, only months later, that chemist did something amazing when he took a walk down to the pit. Scanning its depths, he had to peer past grief to see that rope floating just below the water’s surface. To reach into that toxic soup and keep pulling, hand over hand, he had to ignore the doubt that countered each tug of the slimy rope. Finally, he had to reach for hope when he delivered that rope to experts for examination.
That chemist flexed the mystery muscle. He demonstrated a strength we rarely hear about in exercise circles: returning. Not exercising for a while can bring its own form of loss. The decision to return can be hard. I usually grieve all the ground I’ve lost and weight I’ve gained. Still, I want to move again. At first, doubt and fear follow me into each workout. For a while, I have to decide over and over to return again and again. Eventually, repeated returning helps me break through into hope.
Is “returning” really a muscle, though? How does deciding to return actually strengthen things?
Neuroscientists point to meditation as an example of how returning can fundamentally change our brains. Meditation rides a looping rhythm of focus, distraction, and returning. It’s less about perfect, zero-point calm and more about returning to the moment. It’s this perfecting of returning which changes the brain. In her article, “This is Your Brain on Meditation,” psychiatrist Rebecca Gladding, MD, explains that meditation strengthens the, “Lateral prefrontal cortex: the part of the brain that allows you to look at things from a more rational, logical and balanced perspective.” At the same time, it weakens caustic neural connections which magnify our failures into flaws. Fewer flaws? Balanced perspective? I’ll take some of that (especially when arguing with myself just to get dressed for a workout).
So “returning” really does change things, but how do I start?
For me, the first, hardest, and most important step is to let go of any shame about being sedentary. As my husband, Frank, says, “I can feel all the stupid that I want, but that won’t keep me from acting stupid in the future.” Shame is a waste of time. It doesn’t make me move any more or work any harder. Positive thoughts actually get me moving. Thoughts like:
- “It took a while to get here; it will take a while to get back.”
- “The body is smart. It did what it had to do while you were away; it will adapt as you start to move now.”
- “You may not be able to pick up from where you left off, but you can pick up.”
Like those scientists who returned to the pit after its greatest tragedy, I can return to fitness. There’s no limit to do-overs. When I decide to return, I flex a master muscle of the mind. For sure, the results aren’t instant. Just like any muscle, returning can atrophy without use. Every time I decide to return, though, it gets stronger, and so do I.
It’s this perfecting of returning which changes the brain.
“I Hate Forcing Myself to Exercise” plus more in “Just Show Up: Why Movement Matters,” a free weight loss eGuide
New Life in a Death Trap
This is Your Brain on Meditation by Rebecca Gladding, MD, in Psychology Today
More Sassy Weight Loss Stories
from Shelby in Every 100 Pounds eGuide