On a recent Joe Rogan podcast, Mark Zuckerberg talked about how exercise helps him cope with the stress of being the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Zuckerberg used to jog but later switched to mixed martial arts as jogging did not help him switch his mind off.

There are two ways to address the problem of how to take the mind off work, reset and begin afresh. One is through meditation which requires bodily stillness, and the other is through exercise. Most people prefer the latter, as keeping the body moving is far easier than maintaining physical stillness.

The conscious mind is like a pot filled with water. The water represents thoughts. When the pot is heated, it sets the water molecules into motion, and when the movement is fast enough, molecular bonds break, and water begins to evaporate. Similarly, when the mind is under stress generated by work-related thoughts, there is excessive movement of thoughts, creating friction and unease in the mind. Just as water evaporates beyond a specific temperature, the excess thought energy will need to find an outlet.

Rather than bottle up that excess mental energy or suffer the consequences of an uncontrolled release through anger or other negative emotions, we can dissipate stress-generated mental energy through exercise. Exercise functions as a safety valve, diverting excess mental energy toward the body. A stressed mind also triggers the stress response in the body, which brings about physiological changes. Exercise can counteract these changes and restore equilibrium to the body.  

Exercises involving repetitive motions like jogging may not effectively divert our attention from the mind. This is because jogging resembles walking, and we are seldom mindful about walking. It is an unconscious, automatic process. Unless we become mindful of every step, walking and jogging is not an efficient way to de-stress and take our mind off work.

On the other hand, when we engage in a more strenuous activity where we get our heart rate high enough so we cannot talk in complete sentences, our focus will be on the body, allowing the mind to reset. The problem is being in good enough physical shape to maintain that activity level for sustained periods.

Alternatively, activities such as mixed martial arts, which Zuckerberg embraces as his method of choice, force us to be present. The unpredictable nature of the movements and the responses required keep our attention and focus on the activity. The mind does not get an opportunity to steal our attention.

We may not be fit enough to sustain aerobic activity at a level where we can’t speak in complete sentences or be skilled enough to engage in mixed martial arts. We can return to walking or slow jogging with a twist in such instances by adopting a simple technique to bring our attention to the present. An example of such a technique is maintaining our focus on the right leg for ten steps and then switching to the left leg for another ten and back to the right leg. Although the leg movements are repetitive and predictable, counting our steps on one leg and switching to the other and back will chain the mind and prevent it from running away with other thoughts. There may be different ways to keep our mind on the activity and not allow the mind to wander, such as keeping our eyes on a tree at a distance. The critical point is recognizing the importance of conscious engagement of the mind.

Thinking a lot isn’t necessarily wrong but learning the art of switching off the mind from time to time, either through meditation or exercise, will help keep our creative and problem-solving potential intact.