To or from? that is the question

Life can be pulled by goals just as surely as it can be pushed by drives.

Viktor Frankl

As so often happens, the Onion puts its finger on the pulse of American culture, even in the world of health and fitness. Last year “America’s Finest News Source” showcased a video of a mock new product release: “New Nike Running App Tells You What You’re Really Running From”

In their satirical TV news show, an attractive anchorwoman explains the new product: “Today’s fitness trackers can tell you how far you’re running, but tomorrow’s can tell you why you’re running. The new Nike Run Logic Plus pinpoints the desperate psychological demons at the root of your exercise routine. Tech Trends reporter Aaron Vaughn has more…”

“It’s a problem all runners face. You run and you run and you run, but it’s never enough. No matter how many miles you put in, that gnawing ache in your soul never really goes away.”

The satire is funny and right on point, but it goes deeper than our obvious problems with exercise and our bodies. It highlights the fundamental dilemma that lies at the heart of almost every human enterprise in the modern world. That is, are we moving towards something or away from something?

The question forces us to examine our most basic motivations. Are we running away from obesity and disease or towards vitality? Are we running away from insignificance or towards a sense of integration? Are we fleeing a gnawing sense of  insecurity and impermanence or moving towards a life of balance and equanimity? Even if we never lace up a pair of running shoes, it’s essential that we recognize and understand the difference.

Of course, it’s often a mixture of all these things; overlapping motivations are common in the human animal and our drives can change from day to day, even minute to minute. Nevertheless, it’s critical to know what we’re doing. As Socrates might well have put it, “the unexamined race is not worth running, the unexamined discipline is not worth practicing.”

This is no trivial philosophical matter. It’s safe to assume that running from has a completely different neuro-endocrine profile than running to. Likewise, it’s safe to assume that each has fundamentally different long-term health effects. It’s also safe to assume that running from and running to will have completely different life outcomes.

Obviously, there are times in our lives when running from is perfectly adaptive and sensible. In fact, the reason we're here today is that we’re pretty good at doing just that; our ancestral environment was, as they say, a “predator-rich environment." But today we know that autonomic health is a matter of proportion and duration. Chronic activation of fear, aversion and the fight-flight response bathes our tissues in cortisol and other stress hormones. Over time, this exposure degrades our health and makes us vulnerable to lifestyle diseases such as metabolic syndrome, obesity, depression and neurological degradation. Even worse, it degrades our attitudes and our spirit.

Running to on the other hand, is an approach behavior that reflects our curiosity and the desire for encounter and embrace. In this state, we’re pumping oxytocin and other hormones that encourage trust, affiliation, curiosity and bonding. The problem with compulsively running from is that it exacerbates a reactive and fearful world view. Our behavior shapes our consciousness: My body is running away, therefore the world must be a dangerous place. In contrast, running to shapes a view of a world that is promising, interesting and attractive.

So forget about sets, reps and mileage for the moment and ask yourself some fundamental questions about what’s moving you. If you can't answer these questions, it doesn't really matter what your numbers say; your BMI, VO2 Max, marathon time and personal best in the squat won't mean squat. If you’re chronically fleeing, you may want to have another look at what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. There are real tigers out there in the world, but not nearly so many as your imagination might suppose. Find something beautiful, meaningful and powerful and run towards it; things will work out much better in the long run.