I have skinny calves, sort of.
Sort of because for the last two months I have been working my calves at the gym almost every day. So they are sorta bigger.
I can finally see a glimmer of the large vein that runs down the inside front of my right calf (the saphenous vein, the one heart surgeons use for heart bypasses).
In all of my 65 years, I don’t recall having seen my saphenous vein before.
I have lifted weights religiously for 42 years. I worked my upper legs hard for a few years in my late 30’s, but constant back problems kept me out of the leg exercise ring.
I was (and still am) the classic guy with a bigger upper body being carted around by two legs that look as if they are capable of no more than simple ambulation. A lumbar fusion and two hip replacements didn’t help the situation and it appeared that my “only there for walking” legs were to be a permanent part of my reality.
Notice that I had bought in, hook line and sinker, to the fixed belief that my legs were fixed in formaldehyde for all of my remaining years on planet earth and there was nothing I could do about it.
Given the covid induced miasma that has fouled up our collective sense of any future, and with each day like a repeat of the last 150 (aka Groundhogs Day), I thought I would add some spice to my life and turn my calves into a mini project. One last calves hurrah before they totally wither up on the vine of aging.
Besides the desire for a set of calves that are not as smooth as the licked surface of a Dairy Queen soft serve chocolate ice cream cone, I knew that designing a mini project like this during this challenging time would be good for my mental health.
Many of us think about dopamine as the brain molecule associated with rewards and addiction. Dopamine is not really about rewards. Dopamine is about anticipation and the future. And according to Dr. Andrew Huberman, a Stanford neuroscientist, it is key to our ability to move through long periods of challenge.
Back in the days of yore, long before the acquisition of food and sex became so easy with the advent of supermarkets filled with our oral hearts desires and of pre covid-19 bars crowded with the alcohol soaked brains of humans battling for an evening of physical bonding, our ancestors had to work much harder for their next meal or mate.
And the engine of their quests was brain dopamine, the molecular engine of desire and motivation. Dopamine is the molecule that gets us to physically move to pursue anything that is not within reach of our arms, literally. Dopamine is the molecular engine that gets us that something that we desire, out there in the world, out there in the future.
A peach in a bowl across the room, a Dairy Queen chocolate ice cream cone, bigger calves, the love of our life, running a marathon, learning to play the guitar, planning the details of a trip to Italy, reorganizing your sock drawer, decorating a home and, creating a space colony on Mars.
The survival of all animals is dependent on dopamine, but in humans, with our ability to imagine and create and plan, dopamine brings all these neurologic machinations to life. We imagine something and dopamine makes it happen. To quote Daniel Lieberman in his wonderful book The Molecule of More, “It is why we seek and succeed; it is why we discover and prosper.”
But the recipe for going out, beyond arm’s reach and into the future, to fulfill a desire, requires more than just dopamine. It takes two other ingredients to make the cake of our desire: norepinephrine, and meaning.
Norepinephrine (a cousin of the more commonly known molecule adrenaline) is the molecular engine of fear, anxiety, and fight or flight. It makes us move when we need to survive, and the brain makes lots of it in a spot called the locus coeruleus. When we are not running from a woolly mammoth, norepinephrine plays a different role. Instead of fear and anxiety the very same molecule makes us feel alert, attentive, and activated.
Because we are living in this covid induced miasma where so many of our future oriented desires have ground to a halt, the dopamine levels in our brains have been dumped into the river of an uncertain future. What is left? Norepinephrine, all by itself. Left to its own naughty devices norepinephrine creates anxiety, agitation, fear, and mental exhaustion. Sound familiar at the moment?
Dopamine levels down and norepinephrine left to its own naughty devices = low grade misery. What is the risk here? We fall prey to getting our dopamine levels up with regular quick dopamine desire fixes like Dairy Queen, snacks, alcohol, or drugs.
The third ingredient is meaning. Whatever that thing is out there that we desire, in the future, it must mean something to us.
Back to my calves for a minute. My desire is to have calves that don’t look like the licked surface of a Dairy Queen chocolate ice cream cone. I have long desired this but my fixed beliefs put this desire in a lockbox and threw away the key. It would mean a great deal to me to have calves that were even just a little larger and that had better definition.
This may strike you as a ridiculous pursuit, especially at my tender age of 65. But that is the point. Meaning is subjective. You just have to really care about the desire. It’s up to you if something means something to you or if you can find a way to make something mean something to you. You get to assign the meaning to your desire. Make it up if you have to.
One year ago my son Max was overweight and desperately out of shape. He “hated” exercise and never, ever, thought he would become a runner (fixed belief). Then he started having heart palpitations, miserable sleep, constant anxiety, and low energy. He called me wanting the name of a physician to see. After a bit of conversation he revealed that his biggest fear was not his heart. His biggest fear was not being fit and healthy for his 4 young children as they grew up.
Being a father has always meant the world to Max and that meaning was the motivation that kept his dopamine engine running over the last year, during which time he lost 75 pounds and became a runner. All one small step at a time.
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about envisioning a future identity as an anchor for the development of new habits. So instead of my son just saying “I need to lose weight,” he envisioned a new future identity, and he shifted the frame from doing a dreaded task (exercise without dopamine to help) to working towards being a fit father who will be there for his kids (exercise with dopamine to help motivate).
One final critical point.
Huberman emphasizes that to keep the dopamine levels up in our brain, day after day, it is essential to celebrate small wins, day after day. When we actively celebrate our small wins on the path to our goal it is a reward to the brain, which gives us a little dopamine boost, which changes norepinephrine from being a naughty little molecule to being a good little molecule. The dopamine boost makes us feel good and lowers anxiety.
For my calf project it meant having an app that tracks the number of reps and weight I use. Every time I work calves (almost every day now) or increase the number of repetitions, I celebrate by actually taking a few moments to pause and contemplate my success and then telling myself stuff like (out loud if possible) “nice job Mike” or ‘outstanding.” I had to get over the bad habit of feeling self-indulgent that was previously such an ingrained part of my “normal” personal operating system.
So the formula is: Dopamine (desire) + Norepinephrine (activation) + Meaning + Small Win Celebrations = Enjoyable Pursuit of a Goal. Plug in your desire and what it means to you, get started, one small step at a time, one day at time, and celebrate!