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How Rucking Can Improve Your Mental Health
6 reasons why rucking works.
Mental health is in quite a spot right now. More than 40 percent of Americans recently said they were struggling with their mental health, leading the CDC to call the situation a “crisis.” Part of the issue is that we’re coming out of a global pandemic that shifted our habits in a way that wasn’t great for our outlook. For example, we spent more time sedentary, indoors, and connected to the cloud and less time active, outside, and connected with people.
The good news is many of these problems have solutions. Just as many pandemic behaviors led to mental malaise, we can develop new behaviors that make us happier.
There are many options, but rucking is one hell of a way to do so. It ticks many boxes that years of research indicate will boost our mental health. This email is the first in a four-part series on rucking. This month we'll tackle all sorts of different topics and questions around rucking. But we're starting here because the mind is primary.
What Is Rucking?
It’s carrying weight in a pack as a form of exercise. More research is suggesting rucking has the most bang-for-buck compared to any other exercise. That’s because it mixes strength and cardio.
Its name originally came from military culture. A “ruck” is military speak for the heavy backpack that carries all of the items a soldier needs to fight war. And “to ruck” or “rucking” is the act of marching that ruck in war, or as a form of training for soldiers or civilians to get fit and healthy.
The military and other large medical bodies are now realizing that rucking doesn't just benefit us physically. It also boosts our mental health. Here's how:
Rucking Gets You Outside
Scientists first started studying the psychological benefits of nature in the 1980s. They were skeptical at first. Frankly, the idea that some, like, shrubs could make us feel chipper inside sounded like hippy nonsense. But the research continues to prove that the hippies are onto something. Nature is a potent antidote to the modern overstressed condition. Japanese researchers found that people facing high levels of stress felt far less anxious, depressed, and irritable after just a couple of hours in the woods. Another study found that just 15 minutes outdoors led to drops in blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones.
There are many reasons why nature seems to improve our mental health. It could be the sights, smells, and sounds of nature. Or the fact that you’re getting out of the office and are often moving around when you’re out in nature. Or a combination of all those things. The point is that it works.
And you don’t have to go far out. The research suggests that even a 20-minute ruck on a tree-lined street can decrease stress and improve your productivity and outlook.
Rucking Works Your Heart
Gym culture over the last decade has leaned into all-out, blitzkrieg efforts. Stuff that sends your heart rate into the stratosphere, like SoulCycle, CrossFit, etc.
But in 2019, a worldwide group of scientists looked at all the research on what happens when you take groups of people suffering from depression and have them do basic endurance exercise. The average session was 45 minutes, done three times a week at a moderate intensity. Think: A pace you can have a conversation at—like you’d get from a typical ruck.
The research found that aerobic exercise was an “effective antidepressant.” This is why the American Psychiatric Association notes that “many experts believe routine exercise is as powerful in treating anxiety and mood disorders as antidepressants.” Exercise’s mood-boosting effect is complex. It may come from alterations in dopamine and serotonin, improvements in our ability to manage stress, and by helping us establish more behaviors that make us happier.
Rucking Works Your Muscles
The ruck is heavy for the sake of it. Carrying that ruck, therefore, works your muscles to a degree that walking or running can’t. And it turns out that strong muscles build a strong mindset. That’s according to a review of the research. It listed all kinds of good effects. “Mental health benefits of resistance training for adults include reduction of symptoms in people with fatigue, anxiety, and depression; pain alleviation in people with osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and low back issues; improvements in cognitive abilities in older adults; and improvements in self-esteem.”
Another pioneering study conducted in 1997 found carrying and lifting weight a few times a week made depressed elderly people happier. The scientists wrote, “The intervention worked with clinically meaningful reductions in depression on all self-rated and therapist-rated scales, with almost 60% of exercisers achieving a greater than 50% reduction in (depression) and 14 out of 16 exercisers no longer meeting criteria for depression at 10 weeks.”
Rucking is Social
Running is great (I love my weekly trail runs). But it’s tough to do well with people who have different fitness levels. Person A might want to run slower while Person B wants to run faster. This means one person gets a subpar workout or the other hyperventilates.
Rucking corrects for this problem. It can give us cardio benefits equivalent to running in a more social and adaptable context. The weight is a great equalizer. Person A could use 20 pounds while Person B could use 35. But they’d be able to ruck at the same pace and get in the same workout, all while being able to hold a conversation throughout.
We know that time with people is critical for mental health. One study conducted by researchers at BYU discovered that loneliness can be even worse for our health than obesity.
Rucking Removes You from Stressors
In many of those nature studies, the participants didn’t see any mental health benefits if they used their cellphones while outdoors.
There are likely two reasons for this. First, when we’re on our cell phones, we’re not actually in nature—we’re ignoring it. Second, our screen is often filled with stuff that stresses us out, like another unnecessary meeting request or anything at all about American politics.
The answer isn’t to leave your phone at home. It’s nice to have a phone in case of an emergency. Instead, silence your phone and toss it in your ruck so you’re not tempted to check it.
You might even try rucking without music or podcasts occasionally. That gives your focus a rest and allows your mind to wander.
Rucking Tests Your Grit
The military doesn’t only use rucking for fitness. It’s also a test of grit. It exposes us to short-term discomfort that ultimately leads to long-term benefits.
Other types of exercise of course challenge us, but rucking does so with a low risk of injury. “It’s no coincidence that the militaries of the world have chosen rucking as the tool to create that physical and mental fusion of toughness,” said Dr. Stu McGill, a leading back health and sports performance expert. “You can push someone and really give them a little bit of toughness exposure without high risk of injury.”
Decades of research and thousands of years of mythology tell us that humans improve by taking on challenges. By embracing and ultimately overcoming challenge.
All of these benefits are great and most other forms of exercise have at least some of them. For example, trail running gets us into nature and works our heart. CrossFit hammers our muscles and is social.
But the thing I most love about rucking is it ticks more boxes and doesn’t have to be some big production, like going for a run or going to the gym can be. Rucking is a sneaky good way to be a 2-Percenter. I wear a ruck most times I take my dogs for a walk. I’m going to walk the dogs anyway. By making that walk just a bit harder, health and fitness become so much more accessible.
And that, I think, is the handle. Being a 2-Percenter is about making everyday life just a little bit harder. Easy does it — but do it.
2% Top Two
My two favorite things this week:
One: A Fascinating Book
I recently listened to a great book on a long drive to New Mexico (to report a section of my new book!). The book I listened to is called Slouching Towards Utopia. It’s a smart and sweeping look at progress and wealth and why it’s failed to deliver on many of its promises.
Two: A Podcast I Appeared On
I recently appeared on Peter Attia’s The Drive podcast. I really enjoyed my conversation with Peter, who I consider one of the brightest minds in health. We talked about everything from rucking, to happiness, to Misogi.
Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week,