In my previous post, I wrote about the importance of sleep as a fundamental support and contributor to mental health and wellness. In this short article, I will be talking about another of what is often considered one of the three pillars of our health, and the ‘holy trinity’ that makes the foundations of our life – exercise.
I think we all know intellectually how important exercise is in our lives. But I am often amazed and dismayed by the number of friends and clients that I talk to that notice low moods and energy, and don’t turn first to exercise. There isn’t a medication in the world that can even come close to how exercise boosts our feel-good neurochemistry. Unfortunately, drugs such as alcohol, cannabis or other illicit substances are the only things that do have similar effects – but these come often at a cost in many life areas, while exercise has pretty much nothing but benefits, though it does have limits as we will see later.
I am grateful that exercise has been embedded in my life since my childhood, spent playing an almost excessive amount of hockey and soccer. (How, and why did my parents do that??). As an adult, it is an imperative part of how I stay balanced, energized, and sane. I am incredibly grateful for my ability to run regularly, and to enjoy it. But as a psychotherapist, I recognize that the major problem for people is not that they don’t realize exercise is good for their brains, but that they just have a hard time doing it. But if you need reasons, here are a few.
If you are considering medication or psychotherapy or other alternative ways to improve your mental health, please consider trying to add exercise to your life first. The US National library of medicine cites a study that shows moderate exercise as mentioned above helps with all of the following:
- Improved sleep
- Increased interest in sex
- Better endurance
- Stress relief
- Improvement in mood
- Increased energy and stamina
- Reduced tiredness that can increase mental alertness
- Weight reduction
- Reduced cholesterol and improved cardiovascular fitness
Your body was designed to move. It’s just an obvious fact that I don’t want to harp on, but why do we ignore the basics? We often attribute our misery to factors that are far beyond our control, and in my experience, factors that not the real source by a long shot. That is why with all my clients I want to make sure the basic stuff is covered first – sleep, diet, exercise. Without these in at least a moderate balance, how and why would we expect our brains to be pumping out all those juicy feel-good chemicals that we want so much? Sure, sometimes we feel absolutely blissful, even when we have not just ignored these factors, but pretty much stomped on them. Fair enough – there are a huge number of factors going on here. But the point is – if something is glitching and you are not sure what it is, or your attempts to fix it have failed, then it is time to come back home, come back to the support beams that are holding up the rest of the structure.
Exercise is, by every account, essential for our mental health. The body fuels the brain. Exercise strengthen neural connections, and even enlarges the hippocampus. Our exercise doesn’t need to be drastic, and it doesn’t need to be painful or according to a rigid recipe. We just need to get it moving, with decent regularity. There are tons of very solid scientific studies that show exercise boosts endorphin and serotonin levels in the brain, improves memory and focus, and even boosts self-esteem. And this is not just limited to the intense workouts like running and weightlifting, but even to walking, cycling, gardening, dancing, yoga – any time that you are moving the body and getting the heart rate up. And yes, even sex. All of these activities have proven effects on anxiety and depression.
Though this is different for every person, studies show that the ideal is around 30 -60 minutes, at least 5 times a week. But what it fascinating to me as a distance runner – is that more is not necessarily better. I am working towards doing a marathon in a few weeks and while my daily runs are usually one of my favourite things, it can have a cost to other areas of life. I know a couple runners who do way more mileage than I do – who are frankly miserable. It is about balance. I don’t want my life to revolve around my exercise – I want my exercise to support my life. That can get a little backwards, I notice, as I stick to a marathon training schedule and modify my eating and activities to prioritize running. Frankly, I’m glad I don’t do many marathons – it is a reminder to me to keep exercise fun and flexible. So let’s keep in mind that moderate exercise is actually best. I have tons of respect for serious athletes, but it appears that rigidity – like in pretty much every other area of life – can steal the joy out of the present moment, and diminish the overall quality of life.
So although significantly more exercise may improve your strength or stamina – at some point it actually becomes a source of stress. This is likely because many people exercise not to enjoy moving their bodies, but as a means to an end – usually over-valuing goals relating to body image, or using goal attainment in sport to substitute for external validation of insecurities. When you need to perform well in order to feel ok about yourself, or you need to lose x number of pounds, or have a special shaped derrière – all of these things can mean that exercise becomes a terrible chore, and a source of negative self- feedback. None of that is going to help you keep going.
So if you know that you want to exercise, but you have a hard time getting out the door, what can you do? Of course, ideally, exercise should be something you enjoy. If you absolutely loathe running, then please, don’t run. There are lots of other things you can do. Find something that works for you – for your lifestyle, for your preferences, budget and time. You can get exercise in a 6×9 prison cell if you want to, and you can get exercise while commuting to a job in the city from 9-5. Get creative with it. If you can get some exercise taking your dog for a walk or gardening or looking for birds – all of this is super.
But what if the attempt to exercise is itself causing you stress? Well, this is where you have to weigh the pros and cons and find what is best for you. My experience with clients is that if you can push yourself past the discomfort, the sum value of exercise far outweighs the lack of it. It’s the same thing as choosing to eat a salad over plate of French fries. And it gets easier the more you notice the benefits!
However the crucial thing that gets in the way is your source of motivation. When people are not motivated to exercise, it is usually because they are using negative reinforcement – which means they are trying to use pressure, self-criticism, shame and fear to push themselves into exercise. Self-talk in this area can be utterly brutal.
If you want to actually shift your motivation, find a way to exercise that is joy and love based, rather than fear based. If you can connect with reasons to love your body and nurture it, to tend to it like the temple that allows you to live on this wild planet, then you are way, waaay more likely to enjoy the movement you do, and then do it again and again.
If exercise is not already a habit in your life, it can be really difficult to shift the inertia and haul yourself out to the gym or the trails. It can feel even harder if you are ‘out of shape’ and even the smallest bit of exercise seems daunting. But this is where you have to engage some gentle discipline. Every little bit you do, it will get easier to do it the next time. Focus on the long-range benefit, and as I remind my clients all the time – try to stick to small, realistic goals. Don’t tell yourself you are going to go from 0-100 on this. You very likely are not going to go from zero exercise to 7 days a week gym classes. That may not even be healthy. There is an old idea in running that you never want to increase your mileage by more than 10% a week – and I suspect that holds true for other things. Your body has to recover and rebuild and get used to this. What we want to focus on is creating small changes that result in long term patterns. If you get just one bit of exercise this week, that is better than zero! Be kind to yourself. Start slow. Have some fun. And build on it in steady increments.