Friday, January 07, 2011

Walk Away from Temptation

The singer Paul Simon's composition, "There Must be Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover," also holds true for leaving your addictive substances. If you ask a group of people who've gotten free of the monkey on their back what they do when they feel a craving coming on, you'll wish you knew shorthand to write down all the different solutions that work for somebody. "Take a deep breath!" "Count to 100." "Call a sober friend." "Go to a meeting." "Drink a glass of cold water." "Touch your sober talisman." "Do a meditation." And so on.

Now comes a roundup of studies in the New York Times -- thanks, Dr. Joe Mott for pointing me to it -- highlighting evidence in favor of one of the simplest ways to leave your demon: walk away. A series of studies completed in the past five years demonstrates the empowering effect of locomotion. A brisk but not strenuous walk of as little as 15 minutes enabled study subjects to turn their backs on substances they craved.

Why does walking work? The Times' science writer doesn't try to answer. Three hypotheses come to mind immediately: endorphins, distraction, and Aristotle.

Exercise, as is well known, causes the body's glands to manufacture and release endorphins. Endorphins are often called the body's own morphine; they are native opioids that take away pain and make you feel good. If you've seen the smile on the face of a bicyclist or a runner, you've seen a natural endorphin high.

So, taking a brisk walk as a device for rejecting an external drug makes sense on the theory of substitution. You allow the soft hand of your inborn neurochemistry to scratch your itch instead of the bloody claws that some liquor company, tobacco cartel, or other drug syndicate has cooked up to ensnare you. Substitution of a harmless, wholesome gratification for an addictive fix is a basic recovery strategy with a very wide range of applications.

But endorphin substitution may not be the whole story, or may not be the story at all. People vary in their rate of endorphin production, and the studies in the current report don't include blood samples that measure endorphin levels. Daniel Goleman, the brilliant popularizer of the Emotional Intelligence concept, highlights the famous marshmallow experiment, destined to take its place alongside Pavlov's dog as one of the foundational studies in psychology.

The experimenter puts a marshmallow on a dish in front of a child and says that he, the experimenter, must leave the room for a few minutes. The child is free to eat the marshmallow; but if the child waits until the experimenter returns, the experimenter will add a second marshmallow, and the child can have both.

In the original study, the children who ate the one marshmallow ended up, years later, dropping out of school, stuck in low-wage jobs, in trouble with the law, divorced, etc., while the children who resisted and waited for the double reward became valedictorians, chief executives, senators, etc. (I exaggerate wildly, of course, but that was the general drift of the results.)

Goleman's follow-up studies tried to find out how the children who waited for the two marshmallows were able to resist the marshmallow sitting in front of them. His results threw out various genetic and characterological hypotheses. Resisting the lure of the sugary treat, he found, is a teachable skill. The children who succeeded did so by distracting themselves. They took their eyes off the item and played some game or walked around the room. In short, they derailed the train of craving by setting their minds busy with some other concern. Goleman concluded that any child could learn to do this, vastly increasing their chances of success later in life.

So, the effectiveness of walking may be due partly or even wholly to the distraction effect. We set our minds to working our legs, keeping our balance, choosing a path, managing our breath, and all the other efforts required for effective ambulation, and in the process the craving fades away in the rear view mirror.

Then also, there's Aristotle, one of the ancient founders of the scientific method. Aristotle, not being an Athenian, could not own property there, and therefore taught his followers on a public walkway. His philosophical school came to be known as the Peripatetics -- the walkers. Ever since, walking has become linked in legend with stimulation of the inquisitive, analytical mind.

Why this should be so, if it is so, remains hazy, but we know that the mind and the body are a unity, and no one should be deeply surprised that ambulation might stimulate cogitation. And rational thinking certainly would lead one to avoid putting addictive substances into the body.

Does walking help avoid cravings because of substition? Or because of distraction? Or via the Aristotle effect? Or all the above? We don't have the answers yet. But we don't need to know why something works in order to benefit. For decades, doctors didn't know why Aspirin or acupuncture worked to relieve pain, yet both helped millions. Perhaps you can cogitate on the reasons as you amble.

Next time you feel a craving coming on, walk away from it. It works!

[Originally published in]