MENTAL STRENGTH (Part IV): Get Physical

Greetings Everyday Spy,

My first job was in a restaurant. I was a dishwasher. I was 15 years old, working secretly in the kitchen of a public golf club.

Spying is not separate from real life. Spying is real life.

Anyone who ever worked as a dishwasher knows how it feels to be faced with an endless pile of work. The hardest part of the job is the constant grind of rinse, wash, repeat. I yearned for something with a little variation, some creativity, more purpose.

The day I turned 16, I decided I needed to learn how to cook.

In a restaurant, cooks are kings. Everything comes to a halt without them. I did the math and realized that more money meant learning a new skill… time to start cooking.

But nobody in my family could cook. My mother was a night-shift nurse working 12 hours shifts, so she didn’t cook. My dad didn’t cook either – unless it was boiling hot dogs or scrambling eggs. 

In the early days of AOL.com there were no YouTube videos or search engines, so I had to get experimental.

Every problem seems bigger than it is, until you figure it out.

I thought cooking would be easy. It wasn’t.

It was easy to make a pan hot; easy to mix ingredients together; easy to throw everything into the hot pan. But that’s not cooking; that’s hoping. 

I burned perfectly good food and wasted an enormous amount of energy – my own and the public utility’s.

It is frustrating to feel like you are wasting time and energy learning something new.

Everything changed for me the day the lead cook at the golf club heard that I was teaching myself how to cook. 

I don’t remember his name, but I’ll never forget how tall he was. He towered over me by almost a foot. My head barely came to his shoulder. He called me ‘little man’ and I called him ‘big man.’

When big man offered to teach me, I told him I couldn’t because I was already too busy washing dishes.

He asked me what would happen if I stopped washing dishes for an hour a day. I said they would pile up. Then he asked me if that was any different than a normal day.

It wasn’t. Problem solved. Let’s learn to cook!

The work never ends. So we have to complete the most valuable task first; learning.

I have been teaching you how the world’s elite operatives build mental strength. For spies, special forces, and SWAT, the work never stops.

Because of the work we do, we never stop building our mental foundation. The day we stop building the mind is the day we start failing the work.

Mental strength, just like physical strength, takes exercise.

The final lesson in building your mental strength is that you have to get physical.

Lifestyle blogs and pop culture magazines try to sell physical exercise as the solution for everything mental. They know that pictures of fit men and women will sell copies and get clicks, so they write 500 words of garbage and push the article out to the world.

Exercise alone is worthless for your mind – like throwing ingredients in a hot pan. It’s a total waste of time and energy.

FACT: Endorphins have no positive effect on your brain.

I know you’ve read otherwise. You’ve read countless articles that short, intense bouts of exercise will trigger the release of endorphins that reduce anxiety and lift your mood. Those articles are not based in science. They are based in marketing tactics.

Endorphins are too large on a cellular level to pass through the blood/brain barrier. They reduce physical pain, like Tylenol, but don’t do anything for your brain. Intense exercise only makes your body stronger, not your mind.

FACT: Decreasing cortisol levels is the most effective way to build mental strength.

Cortisol is a stress hormone. It leads to fear, anxiety, and emotional response. The worst part is that cortisol is totally natural – a hormone designed to keep us safe by triggering our ‘fight or flight’ response in times of stress. Mental strength and mental control requires that we reduce cortisol levels.

There are three ingredients to reducing cortisol in your blood stream. You’ve already learned two of them:

  1. Get Quiet
  2. Get Air

The third ingredient is low-intensity exercise. Let’s Get Physical!

Physical activity at 40%-60% intensity increases your blood circulation and cleanses your system of cortisol.

When you exercise at low intensity levels, new cortisol isn’t triggered. This is the key to the famed ‘Runner’s High’ that endurance athletes experience after 2-4 hours of continuous exercise. The high is due to a protein called BNDF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) that thrives in a low-cortisol environment.  

Spies recognize the value of low-intensity physical activity and its advantages for building mental strength. When combined with the focus (Get Quiet) and breathing (Get Air) exercises you’ve learned in this series, you start to see how all the ingredients come together:

  1. Get Quiet clears the amygdala and preps the brain for focus
  2. Get Air increases oxygen in the bloodstream and improves cognitive performance
  3. Get Physical decreases cortisol and increases the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain

Your brain is the engine that drives your everyday decisions. Mental strength makes your mind faster, stronger, and more resilient. 

You just learned the recipe used by top performers around the globe to outperform their competition; in combat, espionage, and athletics. 

Now it’s your turn to make something out of it.

The lessons I learned from Big man helped me become a better cook, a more valuable employee, and a life-long student.

Big man should be about 54 years old right now. I hope this short note reaches him one day. I would love to let him know the impact he had on a 16 year old boy who grew into a soldier and traveled the world as a spy.

We can not predict the impact we will make by investing our time and our energy into learning.

But learn we must.

Godspeed, #EverydaySpy

Author: Andrew Bustamante, Founder of www.EverydaySpy.com. Andrew is a former covert CIA Intelligence officer, decorated US Air Force Combat Veteran, and respected Fortune 500 senior advisor. Learn more from Andrew on his Podcast (The Everyday Espionage Podcast) and by following @EverydaySpy on your favorite social media platform.