Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Improve your mental health: Move your body.

Get some Exercise. Your brain will thank you.

Physical exercise is probably the single best thing you can do for your mental health—and it's the thing that people often have the hardest time beginning and sticking with. I frequently advise clients to make exercise a regular part of their mental health. Once, this recommendation made me unusual among therapists. Today, more therapists are coming on board with the whole"exercise as treatment" approach

Here's a quick rundown of how exercise helps with mental health, and how you can get through some of the most common barriers to establishing a regular physical activity.

How does exercise help the brain?

1. Exercises reduces depression. In fact, exercising can be just as effective as antidepressant medications in the treatment of depression.

2. It will make you feel better about yourself. Exercise has been shown to improve self-esteem in some studies.   This is not because of changes to the body, but just due to the effect of regular physical activity. Further, exercising outdoors seems to increase the boost to self-esteem

3. Exercise reduces anxiety. Regular physical activity helps settle the mind and reduces anxious feelings. Research shows that exercise can be an important part of anxiety-management

4. It boosts brainpower. It's time to kill the stereotype of the dumb jock. As it turns out, exercise helps learning in adults and helps the brain develop in children.

Here's a quiz: Which activity most reduces age-related cognitive decline, daily crossword puzzles or daily exercise? Turns out, exercise is more important than brain games

So I know that exercise is good for me. What stands in the way? And how do I get through that?

Merely knowing that something is good for us does not improve the chances that we will do that thing. Behavioral change requires actual change, not just insight. Here are some of the answers to common resistances to physical exercise that I hear in my practice. 

1. I don't like exercise.

I think the word "exercise" turns people off. It isn't necessary to spend hours in the gym, or to run a 5K. Think about ways you can incorporate some physical activity in your day. Can you ride your bike to the store, or to work? (As a bonus, the Earth will thank you, and so will your wallet.) Can you take the stairs instead of the elevator? Can you take a walk around your office on your lunch hour? (Related: One powerful way to manage workplace stress is to take a 30 minute walk outside every day as part of a lunch break.) Can you take a walk after dinner, or when you come home from work? (If you want to improve your relationship, take a 20-30 minute walk every day with your partner.) So remember that you don't have to think about exercise in terms of target-heart-rates and feeling-the-burn. Just get up and move more than you have been.

2. I don't have the time.

Maybe you don't have the time to train for a marathon or powerlift. But in terms of adding some exercise to your life, you most likely do have the time. Like I just wrote above, think of ways you can fit physical activity into your daily routine. And every beyond that, think about how much TV you watch, or how much time you spend on the internet. You could be watching TV while on a treadmill, or reading on an exercise bike. You could even be surfing the internet--or working--on a treadmill desk.

And, we're talking about something like 15 minutes a day, or 30 minutes a few times a week. If you really don't have the time for that, then I would suggest that may be a symptom of skewed work-life balance. 

3. I'm too tired.

You're tired, but not too tired. That's a big difference.

Occasionally, you will be too tired. Sometimes you may find that you had an exhausting day, or you are sick with a cold or something, and on those days you go home and go to bed early. But mostly likely, you are just tired. If you get up and go get some exercise, you'll probably feel better.

Here's a trick I've used in my life: When I'm thinking, "I'm too tired," I tell myself that I'm just going to change into my workout clothing. If I'm still too tired, I can take them off and go back to the couch. But first I have to get up and change clothes. My experience is that merely changing outfits triggers something in my brain, and I find the energy.

4. I'm self-conscious/embarrassed.

Lots of people are worried about how they are perceived at the gym, or when they are jogging, or at the yoga studio, or whatever. But it's really unlikely that anyone else is watching you. Honestly, other people are most likely so deep in their own experience they don't even notice you. And, even if they do notice you, and even if you do something embarrassing, so what? That can be an opportunity to practice your ability to cope with difficult feelings.

5. I'm overweight.

First, let me be clear that my intention is not that you lose a bunch of weight. I am interested in mental health, not BMI. I fully believe in the health at every size movement and that includes mental health at every size. I am not telling you to exercise yourself into a new body; I am encouraging you to enjoy the body you have, and see how moving it can make you happier/smarter/more creative and generally improve your life.

With that said, there can be some challenges for people of size. Some exercise options are going to be hard on joints, and mobility for some people of size becomes an issue. Again, this isn't about doing 30 minutes of intense aerobics every day. Just start where you are. If you can swim, do it. If you can walk around your yard, do that. If you like yoga, do yoga. Take some time during your day to get some activity, and move around a bit. See how it impacts your mood after a couple of weeks. Here is a nice resource that addresses the concerns around bodies of size and mobility.

Another challenge for people of size can be feelings of embarrassment or shame. I've heard people say they "don't feel like they belong in a gym," or that "everyone is watching me as I jog, thinking 'Oh, that poor thing'." This is a very real concern and should be addressed internally. Consider if you would feel that way if you saw yourself, or someone who looks like you. If you think you might have the same judgement about someone else in your situation, then I'd suggest you think about what those kinds of judgement do for your own self-esteem. Maybe you want to think about changing some of those thoughts. You deserve to like yourself for who you are, not based on a societal norm of beauty.

Remember that there is a whole community of people out there who face this issue on a daily basis. I cannot speak as a member of that community, so let me point to some people who are more qualified and more eloquent than I am.

Necessary Disclaimer:
Talk to your physician if you have concerns about physical exercise. Don't overdo it—make sure you take care of yourself. Think of this as something you enjoy, not something you have to do.