The Physical Benefits of Gratitude
For years, I ran two half-marathons every year: one in May and one in October. But recently, acting on the advice of several physical therapists, I’ve switched to cycling, as the physical effects of long-distance running were starting to take their toll.
In preparation for an 800km bike ride over New Year, I set a modest target for last Sunday: 40km out from my parked van, and 40km back, all along a quiet stretch of scenic Portuguese coastline. Now, you experienced bike folk out there, please don’t mock my modest Sunday target. I’m at the very beginning of my training: this was my first full day out.
In the morning, all went well. I did my outward run well under my target time, stopped for lunch, had a rest, took a few photos and turned my bike around for the homeward stretch. That’s when the trouble started.
On the way out, I had not noticed an imperceptible downward slope, that had no doubt contributed to my effortless outward ride. But I sure noticed that slope when toiling back up it. To make matters worse, an afternoon wind picked up, blowing right into my uphill push. After 15km of wind and hill, I was well and truly out of puff. And still there remained 25 cruel kilometres to go.
I seriously doubted my ability to get back… unless by walking. And a 25km walk hand-in-hand with a bike was not quite the romantic Sunday that I had dreamed of. What was I going to do?
Somehow, I remembered a little tip I had learned during my running years: to do each km with my mind on something I was grateful for, rather than the pain I was experiencing in that moment. I had always found this to be the closest I ever got to “mind over matter”. Given the double difficulty of wind and hill, I raised the challenge last Sunday: to find 25 things to be grateful for that I was normally not aware of.
I was so happy to see that van, I could have hugged it. When my wobbly legs stopped trembling, I was eventually able to drive home. I will certainly be checking gradient and wind for my next bike day out.
But the benefits of my bad planning are still with me, in other ways. Whatever difficulty I had with wind and hill, I had no difficulty finding things to be grateful for. I am shocked at how invisible these usually are: the health I take for granted, the friends I assume will always be there, the beauty of the country I was cycling through. I could probably have found 25 more.
The physical benefits of gratitude are well documented. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that gratitude increased athletes’ self-esteem, an essential component to optimal performance. Writing in a gratitude journal improves sleep, according to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Those who spent just 15 minutes noting down a few grateful thoughts before bed slept better and longer. Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people, according to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences. And that’s not even starting on the mental and emotional benefits of reduced stress, decreased anxiety and more resilience.
So… if I’ve always known this, why was it so easy for me to find 25 things that are normally invisible? Somehow, it seems that our minds are always drawn to the “gap”, to the things that are missing. When we have health, friends, job, meaning…. somehow these things slip behind the curtains. It takes a bit of adversity to rediscover them.
It would be easy to indulge in self-reproach for this. That’s when self-worth is really handy. We can take the learning… and move on. Dare I say, get back on the bike?