Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2003 / 4 Adar I, 5763

Bodyfire: Even the pros sometimes need a mental boost

By Eric Harr | The New York Times Magazine recently released its second annual "Year in Ideas'' issue, in which a tapestry of 2002's most significant breakthroughs and innovations were put forward. They included the Bunker Buster, an eye-popping missile that barrels deep underground to pulverize enemy fortresses; genetically modified saliva, a bioengineered bacterium that kills off harmful germs in our mouths; even one of my favorites, chocolate connoisseurship, a new way of classifying, and appreciating chocolate.

Another fascinating finding was a new drug that a select few athletes use to boost mental and physical performance. But this isn't an illicit drug, such as anabolic steroids, growth hormone or EPO (Erythropoietin), that can degrade one's health and sully professional athletics. This is a legal and widely prescribed category of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. Paxil is the best-known SSRI.

One athlete who came clean about this kind of drug use is Heisman Trophy running-back Ricky Williams, who struggled in his first three years in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints, both on and off the field. When Williams began playing for the Miami Dolphins, however, his performance shot up dramatically. This was about the time that he was prescribed the anti-depressant drug Paxil.

Williams is now one of the most prolific running-backs in the league -- and he has unabashedly signed on as a national spokesperson for GlaxoSmithKline, Paxil's manufacturer.

Experts theorize that his physical performance improved because his mental attitude improved, thanks to the Paxil.

"Drug-induced happiness has done wonders for (Ricky Williams') achievement on the field,'' says Hugo Lindgren, author of The New York Times piece on the topic.

SSRIs work by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain, which improves mood, energy levels and the ability to have relationships with others. All three have obvious benefits to an athlete, particularly one who plays team sports.

This notion applies to the rest of us. When we're lethargic or unmotivated, it's hard to even get out the door for a workout. And if we manage that, the workout is invariably less than productive. But if we're energized and eager to exercise, we do it with more gusto and derive more benefits from the session.

Am I suggesting that you begin taking SSRI? Absolutely not. That's a call only you and your physician can make. But you can take steps to improve your mental attitude toward exercise, andin the same way that helped Ricky Williams, it can help you stick with your routine and boost your workouts. Here are some suggestions:

-- Drink up. A cup of coffee before exercise has been shown to boost mental acuity by releasing adrenaline and improve physical performance by mobilizing free fatty acids in the blood, which increases endurance.

-- Partner up. Working out with others can transform an otherwise rote workout into an engaging and dynamic one.

-- Cut the carbs. Over-consuming carbohydrates before exercise increases blood sugar levels. To remove some of that blood sugar, your pancreas releases the hormone insulin. Most of the time, too much insulin is released and too much blood sugar is removed, causing you to"crash'' after roughly 20 minutes. You can avoid this by eating more protein-oriented snacks before exercise, such as a peanut-butter sandwich, to stabilize blood sugar levels. You'll feel better and you'll go longer.

-- Pick better venues. The environment in which you work out has a deeply positive impact on your mental attitude.

We tend to focus more on our bodies when measuring our success or striving to succeed in our fitness programs, but just like Ricky Williams, if you rally your mind, your body will follow.

Eric Harr is a professional triathlete, author and television host. His latest book is "The Portable Personal Trainer: 100 Tips to Energize Your Workouts and Bring out the Athlete in You.'' Comment by clicking here.


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