WINDOWS OF OPPORTUNITY
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
To all athletes, aspiring athletes, or to those of us who just workout to stay healthy, fit, and be able to eat more ice cream….
And to those who are looking for ways to optimize their change-making strategies.
Have you ever noticed these moments in the middle of a workout (for some towards the end) where something shifts in you. Your body may feel a surge of energy and a general sense of relief or release. Some of us have this notion of ‘softening up’, being able to better focus, and we can think more clearly…. I refer to these moments as the “windows of opportunity.” Some of us may be very aware of these moments, others disregard them, resume their workout, check in on text messages or social media, take a sip of water or drink a smoothie, take a shower, or just move on with their busy day.
To me, these moments have been transformative on multiple levels. Beyond the “feel good” endorphins that help us regulate our mood and energy levels, once I am able to slow down and shift my attention to these moments, I experience myself as open minded, flexible in my thought processes, and able to generate creative ideas.
In my experience the “windows of opportunity” moments occur during medium to intense physical activity, such as running, swimming, biking, skiing, horseback riding, weightlifting, circuit training and more. Metabolic conditioning workouts (aka METCON’s) would be the ultimate way to create these “windows of opportunity.” The type of exercise you choose to engage in, the duration, and intensity solely relies on your level of general health and comfort with endurance and/or weight training. I am not referring to professional athletes who may be engaging in extreme sports that, apart from activating these systems in a more profound manner, may present with workout fatigue, burnout, injuries, or in the female athlete triad.
I’ve always been intrigued by the mind-body connection, especially in the context of increasing wellness. Even though I won’t share much about the bodily systems involved in exercise, or how these systems get activated to promote molecular and systemic changes (below are some links to wonderful articles if you’d like to delve into more details, I would like to briefly name a few of the systems that are stimulated during moderate to intense exercise:
· the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight system)
· the parasympathetic nervous system (meditative calm state)
· the enteric nervous system (gut brain connection)
On a neuromuscular and cardiovascular level, we may observe strengthening of various muscle groups, increase in lung capacity, and improvement of metabolic functions. On a physiological and neuroendocrinol level, our body releases endorphins, our synapses fill with neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, The HPA (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal) axis which governs stress reaction can better regulate, and our body secretes hormones that promote blood sugar regulation. One of the more significant processes (in this context) is related to the activity of neuromodulators, like endogenous opioid and endocannabinoids, which contribute to our ability to better tolerate and regulate our emotions, be less moody and worried, to feel less pain, have more energy, sleep and eat better, reduce our need to consume substances, and more.
From my experiences with these “windows of opportunity” moments, I notice feeling a sense of agency and lucidity. I’ve seen people feel more empowered and less inhibited, not in an impulsive way, but in a way that enables them to be more connected with their gut feelings (maybe due to enteric nervous system activation) and less bound to their usual restrictive thought processes. What would it look like if we utilized these metabolic and molecular remodeling that occurs in our body to activate the systems that govern psychological processes? We might be able to develop a different lookout on our experiences, and bring about changes in our thinking patterns and behaviors. I find the “windows of opportunity” moments particularly valuable when I feel stuck/trapped in certain ways of being and behaving, or at times where I experience myself as being in a tunnel vision state of mind. To me these moments are antidotes to stagnation. Literally.
Some might say that there are other ways to access such “windows of opportunity", for instance, by consuming substances that activate the nervous system in similar manners. Since I am writing from my personal and professional experience and have not experimented with these substances, I cannot attest to their impact on our mind. I find it empowering when we are able to work towards generating a welcomed effect (versus being a recipient of a welcomed effect). By that we are creating the “muscle memory” and neuronal pathways to generate these effects any time we desire.
Over the years I have learned to identify when I enter those “windows”. I experience this breezy cool sensation that spreads from the chest area throughout my upper body. Each of us experiences slightly different signals, depending on their threshold for bodily sensations and on the physical exercise they’ve chosen to engage in. Some of you know exactly what I am referring to, and some of you might need to intentionally shift your attention to notice your bodily sensations and train yourself to be cognizant of these moments.
Next time you work out, and start feeling you’ve entered into the “windows of opportunity” how about you try these exercises:
o Reflect on an emotion you’ve felt in a relationship/event, and see if the different state you are in can help you experience a shift in how you feel about this
o Set a new goal that previously felt unattainable
o Imagine yourself acting on a specific feeling you’ve been stopping yourself from acting upon. How would it look differently?
o Revisit an area you feel is stagnant in your life. With your current mindset, envision the change you would like to undergo. Does it entail broadening or this area? Shifting? Creating a new path?
o Envision the change you’d like to experience. Visualize yourself taking action in this direction given your current state. What would the change look like?
I hope these exercises empower you to experience aspects of yourself in a different way. Some of these suggested ideas are more straightforward and can be done vis-à-vis ourselves, ‘behavioral activation’ style in psychology, where we can change a behavior or get ourselves to act upon something we’ve always wanted but now have the agency to do so. Some are more related to our thought processes and things we tell ourselves about how we should think and act. These patterns can also benefit from being approached with a different mindset. Other notions that may come up for us are more subtle and complex, and involve our attitudes towards ourselves and the world, and ways in which we relate to others. The more complex patterns can definitely be reflected upon through the ‘windows of opportunity’ moments as well, but would probably be better understood and processed with professional guidance.
Here are some great resources if you’re interested in reading more about the impact of exercise on the brain and the various neuroplasticity processes that occur:
Basso, J. C., & Suzuki, W. A. (2017). The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review. Brain plasticity (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 2(2), 127–152. https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040
Duclos M, Tabarin A. Exercise and the Hypothalamo-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. Front Horm Res. 2016;47:12-26. doi: 10.1159/000445149. Epub 2016 Jun 27. PMID: 27348531.
Leal-Cerro A, Gippini A, Amaya MJ, Lage M, Mato JA, Dieguez C, Casanueva FF. Mechanisms underlying the neuroendocrine response to physical exercise. J Endocrinol Invest. 2003 Sep;26(9):879-85. doi: 10.1007/BF03345239. PMID: 14964441.
Lin, T. W., & Kuo, Y. M. (2013). Exercise benefits brain function: the monoamine connection. Brain sciences, 3(1), 39–53. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci3010039
Morgan, J. A., Corrigan, F., & Baune, B. T. (2015). Effects of physical exercise on central nervous system functions: a review of brain region specific adaptations. Journal of molecular psychiatry, 3(1), 3. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40303-015-0010-8
Nystoriak, M. A., & Bhatnagar, A. (2018). Cardiovascular Effects and Benefits of Exercise. Frontiers in cardiovascular medicine, 5, 135. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcvm.2018.00135
Zschucke E, Renneberg B, Dimeo F, Wüstenberg T, Ströhle A. The stress-buffering effect of acute exercise: Evidence for HPA axis negative feedback. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2015 Jan;51:414-25. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.10.019. Epub 2014 Oct 25. PMID: 25462913.