I recently drove down the length of California. 10 hours of driving in one day, dealing with everything from windy mountain passes to the infamous traffic of Los Angeles.
When I finally checked into my hotel room and sat on the edge of the bed, how do you think I was feeling?
Exhausted. Completely fatigued from head to toe. All I could do was stare at the wall for a few minutes. I was going to be useless for the rest of the evening! And yet, if we look at my physical energy expenditure that day, it was likely one of the most inactive 24 hours of the entire year. Aside from a few bathroom breaks, I was literally sitting in a chair from sunrise to sunset, staring through a glass windshield. In terms of my physical body, the day looked identical to someone sitting down and watching the extended version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on their couch, 10+ hours of doing absolutely nothing.
Of course a 10 hour drive is a rare situation. But we have mini-versions of it all the time, as we sit in our office chairs typing away while staring at monitors and laptop screens. After a big day of computer work you feel very much the same as after a long drive. Your brain has spent hours processing and synthesizing massive amounts of information. Your brain is fried.
Consider that in the 300,000-year history of homo sapiens this is an extremely odd and novel situation to be in. In any other time period, it wouldn’t be possible to spend so much time in a state of pure concentration with no accompanying physical activity. No ancient human ever sat on a tree stump for hours upon hours, staring straight ahead with their brain running at full power. It’s technology and machines that make this odd circumstance an everyday occurrence.
Here’s the problem. When involved in intense concentration such as work tasks or driving, you’ll be responding to stressors that the task creates. If you’re working on a tricky spreadsheet and realize there’s an unknown error that’s thrown off your calculations, your brain will deliver you a shot of adrenaline and cortisol as you realize that you’re going to have to go back and do a lot of your work from scratch. You grit your teeth. Your breath becomes short. Your eyes dilate. These are all evolutionary responses that exist to help you survive a fight or flight moment in nature. The adrenaline and cortisol shunt blood towards your muscles, filling them with tense energy. Your short, rapid breathing gives you extra oxygen in your lungs. Your dilated eyes receive more light in an attempt to find safety or openings to attacks. You’re primed to run or battle for your life.
You can especially feel this effect when driving, when you suddenly need to use your brakes when coming up on a traffic jam, or when you have to make a quick move to avoid a collision. Your entire body gets a jolt of scared energy. Your heart is pumping, your jaw is clenched, and you have a stranglehold on the wheel. Your body thinks it’s time for a fight or flight response.
But no flying or fighting ever happens. You just sit there, completely immobile. All those stress hormones circulate around your bloodstream, going unused until they decay over the course of 30 minutes (leaving behind a lot of waste byproduct). This situation creates a lot of confusion in your body. It’s as if you were gearing up for a fight to the death cage match, and then at the last minute the judge says the match will be decided by a game of chess instead. This is why you can sit all day, not moving anything more than your fingers on a keyboard or steering wheel, and still feel exhausted at the end of the day. Internally, you’ve gone through the wringer.
If you do this too often, you’ll begin to see all the complications that arise from a sedentary, stress filled life. Your blood pressure will increase. Your immune system will be weaker. You’ll tend to hold onto fat more stubbornly. You’ll find concentration comes less easily. Your impulse control will decrease. You’ll engage in coping mechanisms through chemical means like alcohol and other drugs.
How do you avoid these negative outcomes? It would be nice if I could just tell you to quit your stressful job, or divide your long drive into 2 days with a restful stay at the spa in-between. But that’s not how real life works. We’re often stuck in these seated, intense-concentration situations without other options. In fact, it’s what we train our kids to do with high stakes testing every school year!
So we have to revert to plan B.
Have you ever watched two ducks squabbling at your local lake? They might take a few nips at each other, hopping around and honking angrily over a breadcrumb for a minute. After the dispute is settled, do the ducks simply squat down and stare into the distance? No way! Their bodies are filled with stress hormones, and they feel an intuitive need to burn them off. You’ll see them vigorously shake their wings, go for a short flight, or nervously preen themselves.
Watch any animal and you’ll see similar behaviors. After a stressful event, they don’t stay sedentary, they get moving. Cats will stretch and claw, dogs will get the zoomies, hamsters will run on their wheel, and fish will speedily swim off the stress response.
After a period of prolonged concentration, make a habit to burn off the adrenaline and cortisol byproducts you’ve accumulated in your bloodstream. 30 minutes of moderate exercise will usually do the trick. Go for a walk, run, or swim. Do a workout. Dance around the room. The activity doesn’t matter, as long as your body is getting to complete the stress —> movement —> rest cycle you’ll be fine.
The trouble is in these situations your tired brain will want none of that. “Go for a run? When I’m this exhausted? Get outta here!” This is when you have to remember this lesson, take some deep breaths, and realize that no, you’re not actually tired. You're just mentally fatigued. And lucky for you, exercise is one thing where you don’t need a lot of brain power. When you’ve been sitting around working or driving all day, the LAST thing you need is to sit around more so you can “rest”. Being sedentary will only make matters worse.
In my case, after my long drive, I wanted nothing more than to lay in bed and watch the hotel TV for an hour. But that would just be exchanging sitting and staring at one piece of glass for sitting and staring at another piece of glass. This kills the human.
So I sucked it up and went for a slow jog around the convention center area I was staying in. After about 5 minutes I immediately started feeling like myself again. Instead of being so inwardly focused on my fatigue I started to notice the trees, clouds, and architecture of my new environment. I came back from that short 30 minute run with about 3 times the energy I started it with.
This is the counterintuitive reality of modern life. Sitting and doing nothing makes you tired. Getting up and moving gives you energy. On paper, this makes no sense. When you sit you’re conserving energy, when you move you expend it, right?
But you’re not a battery with arms and legs. You’re a complicated organism that evolved to thrive in a world of constantly shifting threats and opportunities. In that context, sitting around all day means something has gone terribly wrong. You’re sick, you’re injured, or you’re hopelessly trapped.
Moving means freedom and vitality.
Moving is LIFE!
I know it’s not easy to get moving when your brain is fried. But a fried brain will become a fried body if you can’t get over that hump and get some exercise done after a long sedentary day. Modern life makes life easy, but this is one case where the easy route is the harder way to go.
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder