Source: Minuiko, Deviant Art
Daja Kisubo is a blacksmith. Once, she was orphaned in a shipwreck and branded an outcast by her people. A prodigy adopted by a foster family, she was recognized as an adult in her new community by the age of thirteen.
On her hand grows a glove of living metal.
That’s because Daja is a mage. A smith-mage specifically, she is a character in the Tamora Pierce series The Circle of Magic. Growing up, I loved how unique her magic was, how she could grow and change the magical metal in her hand.
Even though many of the details of her story escape me today, there’s one lesson I learned from Daja that has stuck with me.
It has to do with the relationship between working out and meditation. It’s the reason that, even though most fitness buffs are focused on getting, well buff, I’ve always been more interested in the psychological side of fitness.
It’s about the power of exercise to clear your head.
It’s about one of the biggest benefits of exercise that I don’t think gets talked about enough. The ability to take a breath, work out, and spend 45 minute to an hour not thinking about the things that stress you out.
Fire, magic, and meditation
In the book Cold Fire, Daja is tasked with catching an arsonist in an unfamiliar city. The firebug and exploration of living metal takes up large sections of the book—but in the middle of the action, Daja is asked to teach two young mages to meditate.
I’ll give you the short version: it doesn’t go so good.
The young mages are twins, and extremely different from each other. Nia is calm and quiet and shy, and her meditation goes just fine. It’s what you probably imagine meditation is like, and the kind of practice you could get by downloading Headspace.
Jory is fiery and impatient, she doesn’t want to sit still—and she doesn’t. She hates meditation and can’t figure it out.
So Daja tries something different.
Where stress comes from
Let’s pause before we get to Daja’s solution, to talk about where stress comes from. After all, you know the answer to this mystery is going to have something to do with exercise, right?
It would be impossible to track down a single source of all stress, but one of the major factors that contributes to negative moods is rumination.
Rumination usually doesn’t mean much beyond “thinking deeply about something.” But in psychology, rumination has a slightly different definition: thinking deeply about your problems and how bad they are (without considering potential solutions).
Ever lie in bed not able to sleep because your boss was being annoying and you can’t stop thinking about it? Or where you can’t stop thinking about how much farther along in life you should be? Or endlessly worry that you offended someone with that awkward remark you made but didn’t mean? That’s rumination.
Rumination is problem solving gone wrong. It’s fine and good and healthy to think about your problems proactively and try to solve them. It doesn’t do much good to worry endlessly without trying to make progress.
It might not surprise you to learn that rumination is an important factor in depression.
Rumination can make depressive symptoms worse over time (no matter where you started), and can even be used to predict future depression .
Part of the problem is that we (humans) tend to believe what you pay attention to.
When you pay a lot of attention to something, your brain unconsciously tells you “hey, this thing must be pretty important .” After all, why else would you be paying attention to it?
So when you spend a lot of time thinking about your problems, you get caught in a kind of spiral.
You think about something a lot, so you start to believe it. But believing it just makes you feel worse—which gives you more negative things to think about.
Not a great situation.
The research on meditation and mood is still young, but the early results are extremely promising. One of the ways researchers think that meditation helps mood is by training you to consciously direct attention .
To connect the dots—when meditation is compared to other effective mood treatments (like relaxation), researchers don’t find much of a difference in terms of distress or positive mood.
But they DO see a change in rumination. Meditation seems to reduce rumination more than relaxation treatments .
Let’s join Daja again and see what she came up with.
Meditate softly…and carry a big stick
Daja couldn’t get Jory to sit still to meditate. But one day, watching Jory go about her sparring, she noticed something—Jory was both wild and completely calm.
For Jory, fighting was a meditative state.
So Daja picked up a staff and taught her fighting meditation.
Meditation can be a powerful tool to improve well-being, but not everyone likes it. I tested out meditating daily for 3 months before ultimately deciding that focused practice at it wasn’t for me (I do the occasional guided meditation).
But what if you didn’t need to meditate in order to get the benefits of meditation?
One of the benefits of meditation is the ability to consciously redirect your attention. Instinctively, I think that focusing on the exercise you’re doing—feeling the activation of your muscles and using proper form—should have a similar effect.
But I have to admit I don’t know of any research to support that. It isn’t a subject often studied.
As I wrote in my detailed breakdown of why exercise makes us happy—why exercise improves mood is actually not that well understood.
HOWEVER! One of the key ideas that does have some evidence behind it is distraction .
When you’re exercising intensely, you can’t ruminate. It just isn’t possible. Good, vigorous exercise makes you focus on fast, intense actions. There’s no space for thinking of any kind.
Gretchen Rubin, author of the excellent book The Happiness Project, has this to say about mood, exercise and rumination:
“When I’m feeling blue, exercise helps a lot. Perhaps that’s because when I’m exercising, I’m distracted and not ruminating on anything that might be upsetting me.”
I’ve heard the same thing from people I’ve worked with. I’ve experienced it! No matter how down you are, exercise gives you 45 minutes to an hour of clear-headedness. Calmness through activity.
Exercise for health reasons, or because you want to look good. But if you’re ever feeling down, and not sure if it’s worth a workout. If you ever need another reason to move. Think about doing some fighting meditation.
 Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2000). The role of rumination in depressive disorders and mixed anxiety/depressive symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109, 504.
 Cialdini, R. (2016). Pre-suasion. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster.
 Cash, M., & Whittingham, K. (2010). What facets of mindfulness contribute to psychological well-being and depressive, anxious, and stress-related symptomatology? Mindfulness, 1, 177-182.
 Jain, S., Shapiro, S. L., Swanick, S., Roesch, S. C., Mills, P. J., Bell, I., & Schwartz, G. E. (2007). A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 33, 11-21.
 Morgan, W. P. (1985). Affective beneficence of vigorous physical activity. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.