If this “unprecedented” time has you feeling depressed, sluggish and unmotivated, my friend Paula Starker, RN, has some great suggestions to lift your spirits and regain your health.
“You’re deconditioned.” my friend’s doctor told her after she collapsed off the treadmill, unable to finish her cardiac stress test—despite the fact that her heart was okay. “You’re out of shape!” he explained. Exhausted, embarrassed and riddled with guilt, my friend wondered why she had ever given up working out at the gym in the first place. The truth is, the biggest problem with most exercise programs is that, like my friend, most people sooner or later quit. You figure it’s just not worth the effort to get in shape, even though you know it’s good for you. Guilt settles in. Hopelessness overwhelms you and you sink back into the rut of inactivity.
The Mind-Body Connection
It is a well-known fact that regular exercise produces many physical health benefits. Lesser known, however, are the positive effects of exercise on the mind. Exercise reduces skeletal muscle tension by burning off the excess adrenaline produced by stress that accumulates in muscles, so you ultimately feel relaxed. Exercise also:
• helps regulate stress hormones that affect sleep and wake cycles, so you sleep better
• increases alertness and improves concentration
• provides you with an outlet for your frustrations which can aggravate anxiety and depression
• releases endorphins, the body’s “natural pain killers,” into the bloodstream via the brain and nervous system, which regulate mind and body
Endorphins are naturally-occurring chemicals that reduce our mind’s perception of pain and stress. Endorphins are also linked to feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite and production of sex hormones.
Surprising recent research correlates the powerful effect of exercise on depression. A study of older adults concluded that exercise alone was a “robust treatment for patients with major depression.” (Blumenthal, Ph.D., 1999) Those who exercised for 30 minutes three times per week did better than adults who took an anti-depressant medication and those who took an anti-depressant plus exercised. It is unclear whether the “exercise only” adults did well as a result of endorphin production or because of the subsequent feelings of empowerment that come from personal accomplishment. But nonetheless, it proves the effect of exercise on the body and mind. In other research, longevity studies from pockets of centenarians around the world rank regular exercise at the top of the list as a secret to living a long and healthy life!
Know What Drives You
Before taking those first steps, take some time to ask yourself what type of exercise program you will mostly likely enjoy and succeed at doing. Consider the following:
• List your interests (old and new; cycling, walking, swimming, etc.) and focus on what energizes you
• Identify your peak energy level during the day and schedule your workouts around this time
• Download your favorite books, music or podcasts to engage your brain while you hit the pavement or engage in your workout
Overcome Mental Roadblocks
What are some mental roadblocks that barricade you from walking along the path toward fitness? How can you muster up enough energy to exercise when fitness seems insurmountable? Do you know that you can make and keep exercise as a natural, guilt-free and an even enjoyable part of your regular lifestyle? You can start today by exploring specific barriers that keep you from becoming healthier and developing your own individualized strategies to conquer them.
Roadblock #1: Getting Started
The road to achieving an optimal state of physical fitness requires time, dedication and hard work. Unfortunately, many are discouraged from even taking the first steps toward better fitness due to a lack of perspective and unrealistic goal setting. Feelings of guilt about taking time away from family members to exercise can squelch your desire to nurture yourself. Not knowing where or how to start can also sideline your best intentions.
The Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” Say, “No!” to guilt and give yourself permission to use time away from your family to exercise. View your workouts as a gift you are ultimately giving your loved ones by valuing your own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.
If you have health challenges, see a medical doctor before beginning an exercise program and discuss your plan.
• Start by parking further away at the grocery store each time you go, taking deep breaths and moving your arms briskly on your way through the parking lot.
• Realize that the majority of the work of exercising is just getting out the door, especially if you are experiencing anxiety or the dragging heaviness of depression. Put your energies into the front end of exercise and focus on getting your shoes on.
• Start with what is realistic for you and work forward. Even if it is for just two minutes, start there and build on that foundation.
• Remember: every workout has value!
• After a workout, reward yourself with a specialty coffee, tea or sparkling water.
Roadblock #2: Negative Self-Talk
Defeating thought patterns, common to individuals experiencing depression, keep you from exercising. Thoughts like these are discouraging: “I’ll never be able to get back into the shape I used to be in!” or, “Even if I do start, I doubt that I have what it takes to keep going.”
Learn to recognize these powerful internal roadblocks and challenge destructive thinking. Regular exercise actually stops negative thought patterns by replacing them with more neutral or positive thoughts. Replace negative thoughts with positive messages like: “I am proud of myself for taking these beginning steps.” and, “I am doing my best today.” Consider the following:
• Refuse to compare yourself to when you were in your best shape or to an ideal others have set for you
• Share your victories with someone close
• If self-consciousness is an issue, plan to exercise at home using a streaming service or at a park instead of the gym
• Remind yourself that one benefit of exercise is an increased metabolism, which means that you are burning more calories even when resting
Roadblock #3: Running out of Fuel
People make serious attempts to get into an exercise routine but often fail because it becomes burdensome.
Mother Teresa once said, “To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.” Refuel yourself with these ideas:
• Think of exercise as a reward or a treat for your hard-working mind and body. Eliminate it from your list of “shoulds” so that you won’t think of it as a burden
• Expect setbacks and be prepared to get back into your routine as soon as possible without worrying about progress lost
• Bad weather? Be prepared: head to the gym, or do a workout at home
• Double the return on your exercise investment: cultivate a deeper spiritual perspective through prayer and scripture meditation during workouts
• Having an accountability partner (a friend or a club member) to rendezvous with in-person or online might be the fuel that keeps you running
Navigate the Road to a Healthy Life
My friend is back on the treadmill again and this time, for life. She learned the hard way that the goal of exercise is not only to achieve a more fit body, but to be healthier—body, mind and spirit. Think of your body as your vehicle for life. When set-backs occur, don’t make excuses; just do everything possible to get back on the road again. Regular exercise helps you to maneuver around those dips and valleys where anxiety and depression might otherwise sideline you. So map your route, get behind the wheel and navigate those roadblocks of exercise on your journey to a happier, healthier, and longer life!
Live, Work and Relate Well!
Paula R. Starker, RN, BSN