Exercise is Medicine

Happy Monday, and welcome back to the ZanZen blog! This week I wanted to take some time to talk about mental health, and the role exercise and movement can play. 

I want to start with my own experiences, as I only found out about the positive effects of deliberate exercise through my own journey in the health field. Studying ballet from ages 2 through 19, I always had a set routine for physical activity. At the height of my dancing, I was in the studio 6 days a week for at least two hours each day. Little did I know, that routine was what held my mental health together. I say “little did I know,” because it wasn’t until dance became less of a routine that my anxiety grew unbearable. I always had anxiety, but consistent exercise had kept it at bay. Of course, I wasn’t aware of this in the moment, but as I began to introduce more weight training and visits to the gym on my own, my anxiety levels began to decline. 

Going into college I had found weight training to be my new norm, and I owe my sanity through college to it. Minoring in psychology, I learned that what I had experienced first-hand was found to be true study after study. Endorphins and dopamine, our “feel-good chemicals,” are released during exercise, causing physical changes in the neural pathways of our brain. Physical activity does so in levels comparable to many medications prescribed for mental health disorders. Exercise has many of the same effects as antidepressants, meaning that exercise truly does act as medicine. A daily dose of happiness, without the negative side effects and cost!

I was unaware of how amazing exercise can be for anxiety, depression, and even ADHD, until college. Unfortunately, many people will never get education on the relationship between exercise and mental health, making it even more important to teach about. Doctors are taught to treat these disorders with medication, so it is often the first step in bringing anxiety and depression levels down. However, I personally believe that medication should be the last step in the process. Activity levels, sleeping patterns, and nutrition should come first. The side effects of such medications prescribed include nausea, drowsiness, fatigue, cramps, headaches, weight gain, and even sexual problems. These are just a few of the many effects such medications could have on someone, compared to the side effects of exercise; weight loss, increased blood flow and oxygen levels, lower blood sugar, reduced risk of heart disease, increased levels of energy, better sleep, and increased self-confidence. The side effects of exercise are only good, especially when put next to the side effects of medications. 

Moral of the story, exercise is medicine, and should be the first thing assessed when mental health begins to decline. Pick your poison – yoga, weight training, boxing, cycling, the list goes on. The idea of using exercise for mental health is finding something that you enjoy, and letting it help improve your mental state. Plus, you may gain a little muscle and lose some weight too! 

Let’s use yoga as an example. In yoga, we work to find full control over our breathing and our mind. Finding breath in all movements, and finding peace in the mind by learning to control the thoughts that pass through it. These techniques, just like in most things, require practice. In the hustle and bustle of today’s world, being able to control your breathing and thoughts is crucial to staying calm and collected in all situations. Practicing through yoga, finding and controlling your breath, even in difficult positions and poses, helps us do the same through difficult situations in our life. This control is what can help improve anxiety and depression, because as long as you are able to control your own emotions and breath, you will be able to push through situations and instances where we have no control. 

Weight training is another way to help with mental health, but in a different way. Of course, breath is important to stay in control of. But what I have found in training with clients is that the ability to lift a weight we thought we couldn’t is what drives weight training for mental health. Starting at day one, many would not even be able to squat with a bar on their shoulders. However, with time, patience, and confidence building, the weight begins to increase rather quickly. With every increase in weight, comes an increase in confidence. By planning weight training sessions in a specific way, we can also manipulate our heart rate, raising it quickly, and finding control in bringing it back down during rest periods. The same goes for applying this idea to the real world. When situations arise where we have no control, we can recognize that our body is reacting, and just as in weight training, we can always bring our body back to neutral. 

With whatever type of exercise we choose, we are improving the state of our body. It may be felt immediately, like at the end of a yoga class, where we take time to silence our mind, letting our body relax. It may be something we feel as time goes on. As our body begins to re-shape based on the exercise we commit to, confidence in how our body looks, and confidence in being able to control how our body looks begins to set in. Mental health disorders are so commonly related to feeling out of control of situations or emotions. Being able to bring some control back into our life can help calm some of those negative feelings toward ourselves and stressful events. 

All that being said, exercise is imperative to our health in more ways than maintaining our weight. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and luckily, physical activity can help with both! So before turning to medication, try getting into the gym or even going for a walk outside. Once we get our exercise routine consistent, our mental health state will become more consistent. Plus, it’s way less expensive, and much more accessible than prescriptions. 

Love your body, and your body will love you back. Remember to be gentle with yourself, and don’t forget to breathe.

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