The benefits of exercise for mental health are bigged up for good reason.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, chances are you’ve been told to exercise to help it.
This could be by a doctor, a friend, or a quick Google, but it seems like everyone is on at us to ‘go for a run’ or asking ‘have you just tried taking a walk?’.
These suggestions aren’t totally ignorant and are based on facts (it’s called science, Linda, look it up), but man, the thought of moving your body voluntarily when you can barely move it out of bed is so overwhelming that it’s easier to just bat those thoughts away.
If you’re reading this article then there’s an implication you’re interested in seeing what this exercise lark is all about, and trying it out to see if it can help your brain-flames. There’s no rush to start anything, but there are some things to remember that’ll help you stop beating yourself up for staying in bed.
You don’t have to exercise at all if you don’t want to
This is the most crucial. Even if it feels like it’s all you’re hearing, you’re not denying yourself a recovery if you choose not to do it. There was a time when everyone was saying we should all be doing the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge and look how that turned out.
Leaping out of your darkness, flicking tears away from your face and jumping into some Mr Motivator style lycra before skipping out the door to merrily sprint 10k and give thumbs up to passing pedestrians is, shall we say, unlikely.
From my experience (please tell me your own!) it was once a hell of a journey to move into a different room, let alone change clothes or think about leaving the house.
When you feel ready you can always start with one of those ‘lovely walks’ people wang on about – though it might be less lovely and more of a miserable trundle through tears, that’s still ok. You do you.
Sometimes it’s easier to swap in a walk somewhere you might usually get transport or drive, like on the way back from work, and (for me) it’s always easier to have a destination in mind for a sit down, rather than just doing a loop of somewhere.
Try not to force yourself when you feel awful – do it when you feel OK
I think this was the biggest one for me; when I feel at my lowest, there is no way on Rihanna’s earth that I’m going to exercise unless I can summon some superhuman strength – which is rare.
I couldn’t even contemplate exercise until my depression felt more manageable (drugs and therapy helped there), and even then I could only do it when I felt in a non-deathly state.
Sometimes there are lighter moments in the dark patches, and it was during those times that I’d go out for a walk or a swim. I think the exercise then became associated with better moods, so would be an easier coping mechanism to reach for when I started to feel desperate again.
Consider a variety of ‘impact’ levels
Walking is great, sure, but a lot of people find it dull.
Running is fantastic, but it’s an actual living hell when you’re starting out and not something a lot of people want to jump straight into.
Personally I find swimming and hot yoga both excellent, as they’re so consuming that all you can think about is trying not to swallow water or trying not to pass out in the heat, and you really give your brain a break from its attempts to crush you. Also, if you’re actually focusing on how not to die, then chalk that up to a win.
Don’t get hung up on numbers
It’s not about how fast you’re going or how much ground you cover or how long you’re active, it’s about the fact that you’re actually doing it.
If you want to work on personal progress later, then by all means, but for the start just remind yourself that heading out to do something is an improvement on staying in to implode.
Sometimes (ok, a lot) I’ll have a crappy run that felt excruciatingly hard and that took me way longer than it previously did to cover the same amount of mileage, but I try to focus on the fact that getting out to do it is something I couldn’t even fathom doing when I was at my worst, and doing anything at all is better than drinking a pint of red wine at 9am. Allegedly.
A wise friend recommended the Nike Running Club app to me when I started to think about speeding up my walks, and I’d like to press it into your hands/phone, too. It’s great for clueless layabouts like myself, and has guided runs with non-patronising, non-annoying (even though they’re American) coaches talking you through the whole thing while you listen to your own playlist. It’s much better than ‘Couch to 5k’ which has inexplicably insufferable music droning on in the background, and there are such a variety of runs to listen to that you won’t get bored. I did the ‘first run’ three times and didn’t hate it.
How does exercise improve your mental health?
Enough about me and more about the science bit; our brains are malleable, meaning that they can grow and change and develop a lot of healthy, strong matter around the well-trodden neural pathways of despair. To create new, healthy pathways, we have to experience new things; from trying to learn something new, to taking a new route to the ice-cream shop, to exercising.
When we first begin something new, the pathway will develop very delicately, like the first time you cut through long wheat in a field (hi Theresa May). The more you practice the activity, the deeper and more formed the pathway will get, and the stronger your brain’s plasticity becomes.
Depression is a sneaky, vile intruder into our brains, and I like to think that the more healthy pathways we can try and introduce, the stronger our ‘positive brain army’ is that can tell depression to bugger off (look, anything that helps is worth considering, right?).
Exercise and endorphins are so strongly linked that many doctors wish they could actually prescribe it to depression sufferers. For me it got to the point where I was willing to try anything, and lo, exercise actually seems to help.
Exercise, like depression, will be different for everyone. Physical activity won’t cure you, but if you can find a manageable way of doing it then it’s a strong contender for a way to clear the fog from your brain and take depression’s foot off the accelerator.
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