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Tolstoy, Depression and the Big-Time Benefits of Exercise

In Part 3 of Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina, Konstantin Levin, the character Tolstoy based on himself, gets zonked with a cloud-nine epiphany as he mows hay with the peasants on his estate. A wealthy landowner, Levin is ill at ease in Russian high society, put off by lace-curtain pretensions and always yearning for rustic simplicity. Early in the chapter, he argues about the town council with his half-brother Sergei, and feels unsettled and faintly guilty about the self-centered apathy he recognizes beneath his aversions to local government.

Feeling bested and exposed by his highbrow half-bro as the debate winds down, Levin  considers how to assuage his rattled mood. He remembers being similarly riled at his estate steward the previous year, and how his ire evaporated like the sweat off his neck once he joined the muzhiks for some vigorous work in the fields.

Tolstoy 1Levin’s got the wisdom to recognize both the risks of indulging anger and the benefits of sublimating its spiky energy. “I need physical movement,” he thinks, “otherwise my character deteriorates.”

So off he heads to the fields, where some 40-odd peasants are working their way across Viburnum Meadow, the biggest and best of his property. A peasant named Titus hands Levin a sharpened scythe. “Watch out, master,” a wizened, lively old mower tells him, “once you start there’s no stopping.”

Levin feels self-conscious at first because he’s out of practice. The peasants notice his klutzy swinging. Some trash his technique under their breath. But he keeps going, trailing Titus down the meadow trying to ape the man’s graceful movements. He gets winded, thinking he barely has the strength to continue, but then Titus stops and whets his scythe, and Levin, glad for a break, follows suit.

Eventually they finish the first swath of the long meadow, and Levin has started to reap not only hay but physical labor’s happy rewards:

And this long swath seemed especially hard to Levin; but then, when the swath was finished and Titus, shouldering his scythe, went back with slow steps over his own heel prints in the mowing, and Levin went back the same way over his own mowing, though sweat streamed from his face and dripped from his nose, and his back was all wet as if soaked with water, he felt very good. He rejoiced especially knowing now that he would hold out.

Levin’s still concerned that his technique is not up to par, but all his other worries, especially about the vexed argument with Sergei, have been swept away by the tide of country air and the endorphins chugging through his bloodstream:

He thought of nothing, desired nothing, except not to lag behind and to do the best job he could. He heard only the clang of scythes and ahead of him saw Titus’s erect figure moving on, the curved semicircle of the mowed space, grass and flower-heads bending down slowly and wavily about the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of his swath, where rest would come.

Tolstoy based this scene on his own experiences mowing alongside peasants on his estate, and biographies suggest that he found a similar peace in such exertions. An often tortured, melancholic man always struggling for emotional and philosophical equilibrium, it’s no wonder that he’d value the gifts of physical exercise enough to dramatize them so memorably.

The mowing continues throughout the day. It’s very hot once the sun reaches its apex, but now Levin is pitched to the work like he was born for it. In a kind of ecstatic kinesthesis, what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, Levin even becomes the work.

The sweat that drenched him cooled him off, and the sun, burning on his back, head and arm with its sleeve rolled to the elbow, gave him firmness and perseverance in his work; more and more often those moments of unconsciousness came, when it was possible for him not to think what he was doing. The scythe cut by itself. These were happy moments…

The longer Levin mowed, the more often he felt those moments of oblivion during which it was no longer his arms that swung the scythe, but the scythe itself that lent motion to his whole body, full of life and conscious of itself, and as if by magic, without a thought of it, the work got rightly and neatly done on its own. These were the most blissful moments.

Medicine was crude even for aristocrats in the mid-19th century, phrenology only recently discredited and neuroscience, though it was beginning to gain traction, still primitive by today’s standards. So Tolstoy had no way of knowing how the exertion-fueled happiness he and his character experienced was mediated by brain chemistry. Even today, researchers hustle to support competing theories about how, exactly, exercise buoys mood.

There’s the thermogenic hypothesis, which suggests that a rise in core body temp kindles the brain stem in ways that reduce muscle tension and promote relaxation. Another hypothesis focuses on endorphins. These chemicals, released by the pituitary gland within the first thirty minutes of exercise, relieve muscle and joint discomfort, binding to the same opioid receptors as narcotic pain meds. Endorphins also create euphoria similar to that caused by morphine; they produce the exultant “runner’s high” that stokes you for hours after a workout. Such euphoric experiences, enjoyed routinely by people who exercise, may act as affective tent-poles, tugging skyward a person’s baseline mood. This is one thing regular exercise has done for me.

For researchers, the most persuasive hypothesis involves the role of monoamine neurotransmitters. Exercise has been shown to boost the availability of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine—brain chemicals depleted by depression. Running and other forms of sustained exertion seem to crank up the mood-lifting brain brew of monoamines in ways similar to antidepressants.

Additional hypotheses include the tendency of exercise to distract you from your negative thoughts, and the self-efficacy theory—the sense of empowerment that comes from the ability to treat your depression with the simple physic of a daily or even thrice-weekly workout. I’ve piled up decades of my own experiential evidence supporting these hypotheses. And such factors seem beautifully operative in Levin’s mowing experience as well. The work sharpens his senses, ventilates his afflicted spirit, transports him acres beyond the crabbed, constricted gnarl of his neurotic cares. It’s as if some dusky scrim is pulled away, a radiant new world revealed:

Levin looked around him and did not recognize the place, everything was so changed. An enormous expanse of the meadow had been mowed, and its already fragrant swaths shone with a special new shine in the slanting rays of the evening sun. The mowed-around bushes by the river, the river itself, invisible before but now shining like steel in its curves, the peasants stirring and getting up, the steep wall of grass at the unmowed side of the field, and the hawks wheeling above the bared meadow—all this was completely new.

Whatever hypothesis you favor, it’s beyond doubt by now that exercise is a powerful tonic for depression and anxiety. Even when medication or talk therapy don’t seem to be doing the job, exercise can loft you into emotional high cotton with startling speed. When you’re feeling right good already, it can make you feel even better.

As a 21st century scion, scything may not be for you (although many are still passionate about it). But you can walk, you can bike, you can dance, you can lift. You can huff it in a gym or on a city street, but a park or woodland might increase the benefits. The pastoral context of Levin’s workout seems to contribute to his awakening, and this dovetails with research on how green spaces ease brain fatigue. So try to get outside, and venture beyond the concrete jungle when you can.

Rabbit, runThough a bum knee keeps me from running as many miles as I used to, it’s still my favorite form of exercise. Even running two or three miles gives me that delicious pitch of psycho-spiritual momentum evoked so sublimely at the end of Rabbit, Run:

His heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.

I don’t know where you are moodwise right now. Maybe you’re down so low the gutter would feel like a step up. I’ve been there, plenty of times. Maybe you’re wound tighter than an eight-day clock—been there too. Maybe you feel okay but could still stand an emotional tune-up.

Wherever you are, you can benefit from scything the meadow, or some contemporary equivalent that jacks up your heart rate and gets those endorphins and monoamines sluicing through your neural tideways. Try hot-footing it down the boulevard, or biking up the river trail. Get out there with the hikers or the cyclists or the runners. You don’t have to go all that fast to achieve the escape velocity needed to bust out of depression’s gravitational field. Even walking offers enormous physical and psychological boons.

So come on, now—no excuses. You’ve got legs, Lola, and you know how to use them.

Even if you’ve been sidelined by psychic inertia, even if you’re wallowing in rolls of winter flab, you can light out and hit the grit for twenty minutes. It’s a start. You might gangle at first, halting and gawky like Levin in the meadow, or Forrest in leg braces. But you’ll find your rhythm, you’ll ease into your cakewalk flow and flyaway stride, and the payoff might just be worth a thousand straining, sweaty efforts.

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