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What happens to our brains when we exercise and how it makes us happier (bufferapp.com)
189 points by LeonW on Sept 27, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments

Interesting that very few of these life hacking blog posts attempt to draw a distinction between different types of exercise. A marathon (or training for one) is a very different form of stress to a low-rep high-intensity power or oly lifting session, and I would expect their neurological effects to be miles apart.

Regarding the endorphin hypothesis, there's another parallel hypothesis which is that the good feelings of exercise are just a symptom of oxygen deprivation in the brain:

    Altitude-chamber tests have shown that as oxygen deprivation
    increases, some victims experience a sense of increasing
    well-being, even euphoria, while they’re losing the ability
    to function in a thoughtful, coordinated manner.
Source: http://www.planeandpilotmag.com/pilot-talk/ntsb-debriefer/a-...

I saw recently a show on Discovery about the rescue swimmer training program and they mentioned that euphoria is one of the symptoms of oxygen deprivation. At one moment one of the candidates stayed too much under water and fainted, yet when they pulled him outside, he had a grin on his face and looked euphoric.

I have trained in swimming for a big part of my youth, not competition but skills. When practicing swimming under water all teachers were certain to warn us to not push too far. If you are reaching your limits there is a small window where you don't feel anything anymore, which you can possibly ignore by a feeling of "I can do this", which makes you euphoric as well. Combined with lack of oxygen the euphoria will actually put your life at risk while your down there being happy...

Sounds like an alcohol buzz.

Good post, but I think there is too much emphasis in general on tracking and logging workouts.

I find the whole tracking and logging weights, reps and feelings while working out to be daunting and pointless. Maybe it's because I am not a "I'm going to start working out and dieting" type person, rather I just live a healthy lifestyle by design. I don't "diet", I just try to eat healthy in general. I don't have a "work out routine", I just try to be physical every day. It makes the whole exercise process more a part of my natural life, rather than something I have to schedule.

I enjoy going to the gym and getting a good workout, doing whatever I feel like at the moment. The important part to me is working up a sweat and getting my heart pumping, not how many reps with a certain weight I did. I can see if you have a goal of weight loss or increasing your strength to a certain level that can be measured by numbers, but if you are aiming for general health, why do you need to keep a detailed log? Just try to exercise everyday, regardless of what that includes.

If you do keep a detailed log of your workouts, what kind of actionable data does that information provide you? Do you refer back to it daily, weekly, monthly and try to optimize your workouts based on your previous history? If so, how?

People that keeps logs tend to be those that want to focus on increasing the difficulty of their workout over time - progress in how much weight you can lift in a certain exercise, etc.

It's no surprise that if progression is not your goal then logging is not for you.

It's not necessary to keep a log to focus on increasing the difficulty of workout. Over a period of time your body gets used to a certain weight and at that time you'll feel that it's too easy to lift that certain weight. You then increase the weight.

I train with weights, and I they certainly do not weigh the same on different days. Some days are better than others, a log helps keep me on track.

Of course that's me. It might work for you though. In my coaching experience I find, that most people are not objective enough (or have a good enough memory) to work like that.

Tracking calories on paper vs in your head is a similar objective/subjective mess for most people. The mind is very good at deceiving itself.

I train with weights as well, but I do a whole body routine regularly. It's not very hard to remember the weights (at least the ballpark). I think if you do isolated exercises it'll be harder to remember the weights and a log will certainly help.

Well, a log is the easiest way to remind yourself what you weight you lifted a few days ago, if you are having trouble remembering. But no, it's not required.

Tracking your workouts is important for debugging later - if you're not getting the results you want, how can you figure out the issue if you don't know what you've been doing?

If your goal is "general health" and you're doing okay, you're lucky (or you should set harder / more specific goals!) But as an example, I thought I was eating well, but when I started tracking my calories for a few months, I realized I had underestimated my daily calorie intake by about 400 calories, and I was still eating way too many carbs for what I considered to be a "low-carb" diet.

I'm also on Fitocracy (was using spreadsheets before) to track weightlifting - tracking is a necessity for lifting IMO.

I am not familiar with Fitocracy but it seems to be getting much love here. Part of my dislike for tracking and measuring fitness might come from my experience with cumbersome apps that make the process a pain. I used Fitness Buddy for a period, and found it way to complicated and in-depth to make tracking how much weight I lifted and the reps quickly between exercises. I'll give Fitocracy a shot, and see if I change my mind.

As a side note, I do like tracking how much I walk, but not for debugging, but for motivation. I'd like to hit a 100 miles before the end of the year just by walking at lunch, but for no other reason that personal pride I guess.

Hi, one of the cofounders behind Fitocracy here.

While much of the discussion here is focused on tracking activity, I want to mention that we at Fitocracy consider tracking secondary to the social experience the app and site provide. We believe that the key to long term success isn't about numbers on a screen but rather, making fitness a part of your identity and every day life through spending time with people and communities just like you. I highly recommend you check out the social aspects of the experience if you download the app :)

I just carry a small notebook with me to the gym. I note the reps and weight, and any subjective notes about what worked, what didn't, and what to aim for next time.

Takes a few seconds to fill out in between reps.

I'm sure there are useful, simple apps, but you don't need an app to track.

As others mentioned, tracking lets you make sure you're increasing your lifts. I never progressed consistently until I started tracking, and slightly increasing each time.

It took me about half a year of lifting to get where I wanted to be, and tracking was instrumental in achieving that. But now it's all just maintenance, so why should I track? Some people approach it like a sport (that you want to continue to get better at) and some approach it like exercise (to maintain a level of fitness) – both seem perfectly fine to me.

I use the Fitocracy iPhone app to keep track of the weight and number of reps for each exercise. It helps me push myself to get better. For example, if I deadlifted 300lbs for 5 reps last week, then this week I shoot for 305 x 5. I find that this type of tracking is the only reliable way to make progress. Plus, it's great motivation.

My wife is obsessed with Fitocracy. She hates missing a workout, and, because of her, I consistently go to the gym, too.

This is an interesting example of the positive effects peer pressure can have. In high-school a friend and I decided to hit the weight room every morning before school. He was on the football team, and I'd joined the wrestling team (with no prior experience). He was more dedicated than I, and would roust me from bed every morning. When I told him I wasn't up for it one morning, he threatened to start ringing the doorbell which would wake my parents, something I didn't really care to have pinned on me. It worked, and I was more consistent because of him. Moral of the story: Find a workout buddy.

Good for you?

Why the snark? They're just providing another piece of data in an open discussion that may encourage more people to try the app. What's wrong with that?

If your argument is that the comment didn't add much to the discussion, I'd reply that yours added even less.

"That which gets measured, gets done."

I find that by logging workouts and measuring progress, I am much more likely to improve and know by how much I improved. Logging workouts can also save time. By logging my workouts, I know exactly what my target goals are for my next workout, so I can get in and get it over with instead of wasting time doing what "feels right" at the time. This works great for me, but YMMV.

Simple logging could be part of a "Don't Break the Chain" motivational technique. http://lifehacker.com/281626/jerry-seinfelds-productivity-se...

Which is really an example of gamification. Indeed, the "chain" can be seen as a progress bar that you get to fill each day you work at something. Really cool.

I use Fitocracy mainly to track my running, but also for some other workouts here and there. I just like having the historical data of how far and how fast I'm going each run (in fact I wrote a simple API to get at my run info out of Fitocracy: https://github.com/dorkrawk/unofficial-fitocracy-runs-api ). When I'm training for a race I have an idea of what I need to be doing each week so it's nice to have that data in one place. I also appreciate seeing what my friends are doing because it acts as a motivator for me to not slack off.

I see some people who don't care about these thing in the gym. Usually they just wander around without any kind of system and spend most of the time chatting. I guess they still feel like they accomplished something. I however believe that if you don't measure your progress you are likely to have none.

I don't log anything, and I also don't wander around chatting. I show up, push myself hard, and then leave. But the types of workouts I do are guided, for example I did taekwondo for four years, and recently switched to doing "boot camp" workouts. I find it is much easier to exercise when an instructor is telling me what to do than if I just show up to a gym full of equipment and then have to motivate myself to do something with it. If your workouts are self guided then it makes sense to log what you are doing so you can keep yourself on track.

I see these types of people as well, and this is probably true for most people. I guess I just don't need goals when it comes to fitness to stay motivated or make progress.

If you do keep a detailed log of your workouts, what kind of actionable data does that information provide you? Do you refer back to it daily, weekly, monthly and try to optimize your workouts based on your previous history? If so, how?

I used it to run experiments for my self quantification project. I even have an work-in-progress essay about it too: http://kibabase.com/articles/self-quantification

Granted, I can't do much with a sampling of only 1 person, and I only finished one experiment after collecting 30 days worth.

I am naturally a competitive person. While lifting weights isn't necessarily 'competitive'. I have found that by tracking it I make a competitive with myself. I always want to do better than the last time. While I might not always lift more sometimes you win some sometimes you lose some against yourself.

Endorphins? Where's the link to the science?



  "I believe this endorphin in runners is a total fantasy 
  in the pop culture," said psychobiologist Huda Akil, Ph.D.,
  from the University of Michigan.

  The endorphin theory had several problems, the most serious
  being that endorphins are too large to pass through the
  blood-brain barrier that border-patrols your gray matter.

As with most of the neuroscience research, there exists a counter evidence to this -

Boecker, H., Sprenger, T., Spilker, M.E., Henriksen, G., Koppenhoefer, M., Wagner, K.J., Valet, M., Berthele, A., Tolle, T.R. (2008). The Runner's High: Opioidergic Mechanisms in the Human Brain. Cerebral Cortex DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhn013[http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/18/11/2523.full]

Other study shows that the effect is mediated through endocannabinoids not endorphins (But the effect is very real): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14625449

It's one of those "life hacks" articles, I wouldn't expect too much science behind it.

Interesting. Huda Akil is no obscure quack.


Could be more than one person with that name.

See I never questioned this, yet this makes total sense now. Thanks for posting this, I am surprised I didn't know about this before. Kind of, opens my eyes.

A sentense that begins with "I believe..." may not be the best example of science,

a better way to express himself could have been "[X] study has demonstrated...".

There's a lot of personal (anecdotal) accounts that it's real. I don't care if it's placebo or something more sciencey. It works for many people, and it works for me.

OP never said it's not real, just that endorphins are not conclusively the cause.

> If you start exercising, your brain recognizes this as a moment of stress. As your heart pressure increases, the brain thinks you are either fighting the enemy or fleeing from it.

That's exaggerated. It's simply a reaction to increased level of effort. It's not always a full-fledged fight-or-flight response, unless it's a quite strenuous type of exercise.

> The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits. You get prolonged life, reduced disease risk — all of those things come in in the first 20 minutes of being active.

Makes sense. Exercise a little every day, even if it's some very mild form like walking. Laying down on the couch all day long is bad.

>> all of those things come in in the first 20 minutes of being active.

> Makes sense

Does it? I'd say the last twenty minutes of exercise is what counts - it's the difficult part.

It depends on the exercise modality.

If you're doing cardio for VO2 max or endurance training, end-of-set effort generally counts for more (though a proper warm-up sets you up for success).

For skill activities, cumulative experience matters, but form breakdown with fatigue limits single-session gains. Going flat-out all the time isn't beneficial.

For weight training, hypertrophy (size/mass increase) seems to be based on time-under-tension and total volume (so that last set matters), while strength and power training rely on motor-unit recruitment and/or speed, both of which are maximized when you're relatively fresh.

Even for hypertrophy and endurance, there are diminishing returns to additional sets. Somewhere between 3-5 sets for a given exercise and you're not going to see much additional advantage. A training session may include other movements to stimulate muscle from different angles, at different ranges of motion, or independently of other synergist/agonist muscles.

The article is discussing one aspect of one form of exercise. The conclusions it reaches (happiness / mood influences of cardio) aren't generalizeable to either all effects or all forms of exercise.

The last 20 minutes matter if your goal is performance, or muscular hypertrophy. Then yeah, those last few reps, done through clenched teeth and sweat dripping in your eyes, are the ones that matter.

If it's for health and well-being, it's the fact that you're doing anything at all - hence "the first 20 minutes" rule.

Mentally, the first twenty minutes matter most. Physically, it's the last twenty minutes.

The last twenty minutes improves your endurance, strength, and/or power (depending on the activity), but the first twenty minutes provides the general health benefits.

The anecdotal evidence in my personal case which supports the ideas in this blog post is overwhelming. Having started an exercise and diet regimen a few months ago, I have noticed a vast improvement not just in physical health but in mental health.

I feel brighter (not in the intelligence sense but in the photonic sense). That is, I feel like I'm pushing positive energy out into the world instead of negative energy. It has been a fairly subtle shift over the last 3 months, but in my mind it is undeniable.

I like how you put this, I feel the same way. It's like having the sludge drained out of your head.

After spending a couple of years exercising on and off and never really getting these gains, I have finally gotten into a routine where I exercise at least 3 times a week. I've been doing this for more than a year. Here's what I've learned from that experience:

1. Start small. It's much easier to talk yourself into exercising for 10 minutes 3 days a week.

2. Exercise at home. I hated going to a gym so I never did it.

3. Do something fun.

All of these made it much easier to exercise consistently, which was my goal. I stopped running and weight lifting and started doing yoga, cycling, rock climbing and boxing instead. I'm not ripped or anything but I have plenty of functional strength and more energy and happiness than I've ever felt before. I'd say yoga and biking give me the most long-lasting pleasure, whereas rock climbing and boxing give me a quick intense flood when I'm done with them. It's really great feeling like this...most days I feel ready to do something crazy and fun like bike to wine country for wine tasting, or spend time in a wood shop, or go to another country on a whim. Last year I felt like I peaked at going out to dinner with friends a couple times a week (and I barely had energy for that). I also don't miss the mid-afternoon lazy slump or the weeks where I'd feel like my thinking was foggy and there was no way to clear it.

Agree on all points, though I think there's something to be said for 10 minutes 7 days a week – routine is really important. But having a yoga mat, balance ball and some weights at home really helps on rainy days, and making sure you enjoy your workouts rather than dreading them sounds so obvious, but it feels like most of us have been indoctrinated with the idea it's something we have to suffer through.

The one thing that makes a significant change for me is sleeping well. For me to get a good night's sleep, though, I need to exercise during the day, dim the lights at night, and to keep a consistent time of going to bed. The biggest part of exercise = happy, for me, is the fact that I sleep well afterwards.

A year and a half ago I started doing triathlons and moved all the way up to doing a full Ironman this year. Due to the amount of training involved it's an awesome motivator to get you in shape and control your daily plan. Highly recommend it (even if just doing sprint/olympic/half distance) to anyone looking for a structured approach to staying healthy.

I also think it's a great way for entrepreneurs to exercise their minds. The full Ironman is extremely long and takes long term determination. It's not something you can simply hack together (as some people do by minimal training and walking 6-hour marathons). So in a way it allows me to go through a long term process of building up my body (i.e. a company) and make tweaks along the way to improve the performance. I can't tell you how many times I've failed along the way and get better as a result.

Although there is no real way to quantify this, I would say my ability to focus at work as drastically increased. I much more confident and happy as a result.


Curious - anyone else on HN do triathlons?

OH: "You can be good at 2: Triathlons, Career, Spouse/Family - you choose". The single biggest difference between training for a triathlon and training for a single event (Marathon, Cycling century etc) is the sense of "false urgency" a triathlon creates to justify your need to sacrifice other areas of your life to train. Missing a day's training because you have to travel, attend a critical event for friends or family, or work all day on a critical project is problematic if you're training for a single event. However, when training for a Tri it's catastrophic because "That'll be 4 days from my last ride/swim/run!" That pressure is really the secret sauce of Tri's over other endurance sports. It's why you can sort of pick whom out of your exercising friends will go down the Tri route vs stay single sport dedicated.

I have no issue with folks dedicating themselves to do a triathlon. Maybe you do one a year and everyone understands what you're up to and supports you for 12 weeks etc. That's not how it often works though. I do think it's odd that society glorifies what is really obsessive/compulsive behavior that takes over much of the waking day for the participant and materially impacts their relationships with those around them. And no one who has actually done a triathlon here can honestly tell me it isn't the first thing they think about when they wake up and doesn't impact how they schedule their work and social calendar every day vs the other way around. Well(they can but that would be the denial part that comes along with the behavior.

I don't do triathlons because of the time commitment involved. I'm training for a marathon and that's a big enough commitment.

I still think the best way to learn to be an entrepreneur is to be an entrepreneur.

If you enjoy a specific sport or activity, enjoy it for it's own merits. Rarely do things like marathons or Ironman or sports make sense just as ways to keep in shape - unless that's the only thing that will motivate you.

So what I am saying is that sports are great on their own, no need to justify them by assuming they "build character" in other parts of your life.

My guess is that success-oriented people do triathlons, not that triathlons produce success-oriented people.

Triathlon training really isn't just tacking together the training you would do for all three sports; this would be impossible. Instead, it is doing the same amount of training as you would do if you were doing one of the three sports exclusively. But in the same amount of training, you are training to perform three sports rather than one.

This necessarily means that a triathlete is not performing to his/her ability in any single sport. For example, a good time for the marathon portion of an Ironman is 2:40-2:50, but a competitive marathon time is 2:05 or faster. Just to add additional perspective, a good marathon time for an amateur runner is 2:30, faster than what a topnotch triathlete would be expected to pull off.

> Just to add additional perspective, a good marathon time for an amateur runner is 2:30...

That's not a good time for an amateur, it's an insanely good time for an amateur. The world record is currently 2:03:38. A 2:30 would have put you in 22nd place (out of 26,000!) in this year's Boston Marathon.

2:30 is an eternity away from 2:03:38.

I am not thinking of dabblers; many people will do marathons after having barely trained. The goal for these people is just to finish.

I think 2:30 is achievable for a healthy, moderately talented man who is not merely dabbling: someone who is training correctly and has put in a few years of sustained, injury-free effort.

2:30 is still very much an amateur time. For example, I think that even though 2:15 or faster is professional-caliber it is still nowhere near being competitive.

Of course it's an amateur time: You're not going to win any serious marathons running a 2:30, and if you have no chance to win, you can't really be described as a "professional". But c'mon, 2:30 is an amazing time for an amateur. Obviously it's "achievable", since maybe a dozen "amateur" runners managed it in Boston this year, but it's well beyond "good", as you initially described it. It's well into the top 1% of amateur marathon runners.

This whole argument is slightly tangental, but I figured I needed to chime in ;) A 2:30 is a ridiculous time for an amateur. It'll easy put you in the top 0.5% of amateurs in the world. To put in this in perspective... a 2:30 marathon pace puts you at doing roughly 17m30s 5km's, 8 times in a row!

Haha, yes, I agree. 2:30 would probably be run at the pinnacle of one's amateur career -- a personal best rather than a typical time.

I do want to point out somewhat pedantically that it takes being in better-than-2:30 shape to run 2:30 on the Boston course, a notoriously slow course. There are runners who ran more slowly than 2:30 in Boston when they could have run 2:30 elsewhere.

I do sprint and Olympic distance triathlons. A marathon takes far more time to get ready for than an equivalent time length triathlon because you just need to be pretty good at 3 sports rather than really well trained at 1.

The downside of triathlons is the expense, bike, gear, shoes, wetsuit (in most areas), etc.

I agree with your point about it getting you ready to be an entrepreneur. The plus side is that staying in shape makes me better at everything.

> I still think the best way to learn to be an entrepreneur is to be an entrepreneur.

I whole heartedly agree. My point is that it gives you a framework much like building a business is; to create a mind and attitude built for winning in a long-term competitive atmosphere. Too often I find myself trying to find the easiest way out of a problem. It's nearly impossible to do in the longer distance triathlons.

I wholeheartedly agree that exercise increases the ability to focus at work. I would even go as far to say that people who are not doing it are leaving some latent ability at the table. This is also true of sleep and nutrition, not just exercise.

I do want to remark briefly on what is admittedly a minor point that you made, namely that triathlons are highly recommended "... even if just doing sprint/olympic/half distance." It is a common misconception that the longer the distance, the more difficult or meritorious it is to complete. However, this is not true: It is not the case that one races an Ironman at the same intensity that s/he would for, say, a sprint-distance triathlon; rather, in order to last the entire duration of the longer distance, s/he is racing less intensely. (A person who performs a sprint-distance triathlon at the intensity s/he can hold for an entire Ironman is not racing the distance.)

Let's go to running for a concrete example. A topnotch overall pace in the marathon is 4:50/mile. But a miler will run a single mile in 3:50, a whole minute faster than marathon pace. (Note that these are typical competitive times rather than world-record times.)

With all this said, I would be remiss not to say that I agree with the overall sentiment that one should take baby steps rather than brashly pursuing unreasonable goals.

In response to your final question, I haven't done triathlons since college. At the moment, I am working on getting into shape to finally break 5:00 for the mile run. Next up is breaking 1:00 in the 100-meter swim. I'm still figuring out what a reasonable goal is for cycling... maybe 5 miles in 10 min.?

After I have all the pieces, I'll put them together and start doing triathlons again :-).

The book Spark by John Ratey is a decent read for anyone who wants to go more in-depth on this topic. The big idea that Ratey tries to get across is a reframing of exercise as something that is essential to mental health, with positive physical side-effects. There's been a lot of work recently tying exercise to increased neuroplatisity that's covered as well.

Yes, I just read this book and wholly recommend it.

John Ratey is a famous Harvard psychiatrist who wrote Driven to Distraction. In Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (http://www.amazon.com/Spark-Revolutionary-Science-Exercise-B...), he explains how intense aerobic exercise, like sprints or interval training, will generate the fuel that grows your brain and makes you smarter, and puts your brain chemicals in balance to improve learning esp if you have a history of partying, stress, anxiety, etc.

I have been running several miles a day for a few months, and then last week I started running sprints and noticed an immediate effect.

This is the routine I've been doing: I've been running in a field about the size of a soccer field. To start off I jog half the soccer field and then on the second lap I sprint the length of the field (about 50 yards) and then jog the remaining part. Then walk a lap to catch my breath. So one interval is three laps -- one jog, one jog/sprint, one walk -- at first I did that 4 times, and then increased it to 5, 6, 7, as you get better. When you sprint, just pump your arms and run as fast as you can. Do that 3 times a week -- every other day to let your brain and body recover. On off days, jog a few miles. He gives more details in the book.

I like this reframing. I've used it as my primary motivator for engaging in aerobic exercise.

I used to struggle to jog a mile at a slow pace, now I'm training for a marathon.

I used to exercise to get better, and as for me, the ability I seem able to improve physically (as far as cardio endurance goes) hrough training is very limited. I saw some studies a few years ago that indicated I wasn't the only one, and about 10% of people in a well controlled study saw very limited improvement through training.

However, the mental benefits are key. So the reframing matters to me. If the purpose of cardiovascular exercise was just to run a marathon, it'd be a waste.

Recently on HN:

"Exercise Does Not Make You Less Depressed (bmj.com)" http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4446400

This is, so to speak, micro-level. There is also macro-level.

Exercises produces self-confidence, alters self-image and lifts self-esteem. This results in more realistic self-image (less self-delusion and reality distortion) which, in turn, decreases the pain (emotional weariness) caused by cognitive dissonance (when facing reality). This makes you happy.

Go ahead, and tell us where the one ends and the other begins..)

While I don't deny that exercise helps some people feel better, this has got to quite variable from individual to individual. For example exercise doesn't make me happy or energized, it just makes me tired.

Me too. Some people report that exercise makes them feel smarter; after I work out I can sometimes barely form sentences (and I'm not doing anything extreme, either). There's a minute chance that it helps my overall mental health at other times, but I don't really have a way to measure that.

According to another study I read runner's high is caused by endocannabinoids.


Edit: Oops wrong link: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/05/120510-runne...

I don't remember ever feeling "hapiness" after doing exercise. All that's left after it it's the overwhelming feeling of being tired.

If you don't exercise regularly, I believe that's normal.

In my experience, it takes a week or three of keeping to the schedule, and then I start noticing that I'm just really upbeat & feel great, even though I'm sore.

'the brain thinks you are either fighting the enemy or fleeing from it'

probably not

Take note startups -- find a way to put this in a pill and you can make billions of dollars.

Yeah, exercise is free but only if your time has no value.

My quality of life and health is much better due to regular exercise -- I don't think I could afford to not workout. It definitely has a positive impact on my business relationships as well as my motivation, and saves me a ton in healthcare expenses.

Hence the pill.

I love your idea.

science or fiction. Whenever I work out, I feel great. period.

interesting, and motivating, read, thanks for sharing it

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