Cardio for the Id

What's your usual? Maybe a five-mile run in the morning, or a bike ride after work? Perhaps you get some cardio in by stalking the gym during lunch hour looking for a free elliptical.

We all have our routines. And those of us who like to mix in some exercise regularly often develop a set regimen, or at least a preferred context for our exertions. With that in mind I'd like to ask a rhetorical question: When you return from your morning or evening constitutional, when you towel off after your "usual," are you the same person you were when you began? If the answer to that question is "Yes," then let me humbly suggest there is much more to be gained from your endeavors than mere exercise.

My usual is a six and a half mile hike in the wilderness. The mileage is not the point - runners (especially long-distance types) would scoff at such a minimal total, and bikers can blink and cover half that distance. The point is the context. The wilderness (in my case a county-owned adjunct to a national monument) makes different demands on us than does the pavement, or the city park, or the local gym. When you head out to bike or run in the chilly morning air the questions you ask yourself are along the lines of, "Am I going to be warm enough?", or "Will my route be crowded?", or "Do I really have the hips for spandex?" These kinds of thoughts may challenge your comfort and self-image, but they are fairly inconsequential with respect to who you are as a human being.

When I step away from the pavement (more likely dirt or gravel) at the trailhead and walk into nature, the questions I ask myself - even if I'm not consciously aware of doing so - are of a more fundamental, existential nature. And they all tend to reduce to, "Who am I?" The reasons for this are pretty obvious. When we strip off the layers of civilization in which we cover ourselves, we are open and vulnerable. And when we are vulnerable the first considerations are always about how to maintain personal health and well-being - considerations which lead to questions about our basic survival skills.

To be clear, I'm not talking about how to kill and skin a deer. I'm talking about simple things: Do I have enough food, enough water; What if I have to go to the bathroom (Outside? In the woods? Seriously!?); or, Would I know how to recognize poison oak? These kinds of issues, which are minor or nonexistent in a civilized context, are magnified in the wild, and they in turn prompt sharper focus on even weightier issues: What if I break an ankle and can't get back before nightfall; I wonder if I could spin a twig fast enough to start a fire in a pile of leaves; and, What did that trailhead sign say about bears again?

Now I'm not saying I spend a lot of time on my regular hike thinking about all these things. I don't. But when one steps into the wilderness they do seem to bubble up from the deep dungeons of subconscious where they can usually be safely ignored. When I'm out, they act as a subtext. They indirectly inflect every moment and every step of my rambles, and it's an inflection for which I'm glad. Not just because it's a sort of confirmation that I'd at least have the instinct to switch to survival mode in the wild (if not the requisite skills), but because it changes how I think about myself - if only in very small ways. And when that happens, it changes who I am - if only in very small ways.

Every time I return from my usual hike, I feel as if I've come back a little bit different person from who I was when I left (aside from being sweatier and dirtier). And it feels like a worthwhile thing to have done, not just from a physical perspective, but from a metaphysical one as well.

If all of this sounds like an unabashed (and entirely too self-congratulatory) advertisement for hiking, I can't really argue that point. I'm not denigrating the value of biking or running, and certainly not exercise in general. It's not even really about the hiking. I'm lauding the benefits of knowing what it feels like to be stripped of the armor of technology and civilization.

When you head into the wild, even if just for a bit of exercise, it's a workout for the psyche as well as the physique. That can feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but it eventually turns into welcome, and sometimes even revelatory, moments of self-reflection.

And you never need to worry about how your psyche looks in spandex.