Exercising for Mental Health and Happiness
Are you young enough to remember what it’s like to be a kid? If not, go visit a park and observe the children there. Be sure to shave your pornstache and leave behind your binoculars to avoid being confused for a pedophile. What you’ll likely remember from childhood (or from observing strangers’ children) is that kids LOVE to run around. They’re constantly running--running around on the playground, running away from you in crowded public places, running away from strangers (hopefully). It’s literally non-stop running. All of that running makes the rest of us older, bigger people feel a bit lazy. There is no greater reminder of your sedentary lifestyle than watching children revel in running around while you slump over on a park bench and wipe white (donut) powder off of your face.
According to the judgy folks over at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a whopping 80% of American adults are not getting the recommended amount of exercise--2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week, or 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous activity per week.
Despite this sombering news, America is actually exercising more than many other nations. In a 2013 survey of how frequently individuals across eight countries exercise, we not-so-lazy Americans came in first place! We are also exercising slightly more than we were 10-20 years ago. Despite these gains, Americans still are not losing weight. This seems puzzling and, frankly, unfair. We’re exercising more than skinny Europeans and more than our 1990s counterparts, yet nearly 70% of us are overweight or obese. You’re telling me that the Italians can dine on pasta everyday and the French can eat butter-slathered baguettes and wine, and yet we’re the fatties?
So if exercise isn’t going to help most Americans lose a significant amount of weight, why do we keep torturing ourselves with burpees? Why do millions of Americans pretend to love running when it’s literally the most boring thing in the world? How does a place like Crossfit remain successful when one of its main platforms is “do as many reps as you can until you pass out in your own vomit?”
Perhaps a small percentage of the runners and Crossfitters are masochists, but most of us who exercise do it for some vanity-related reason, whether it’s reducing belly paunch or aspiring to Michelle Obama’s arms.
What doesn’t get as much air time are the mental and emotional health benefits that regular exercise offers. Regularly exercising improves your mental health and happiness in a variety of ways: it reduces stress, improves mood, boosts brain functioning and memory, inspires creativity, elevates self-confidence, and releases endorphins powerful enough that they can even alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. And these benefits are available to virtually everyone who exercises, in contrast to the weight loss and physical appearance-related benefits, which tend to be skewed towards the genetically blessed and those with access to celebrity trainers.
Not only does regular exercise almost guarantee better mental health, it also doesn’t require you to spend two hours at the gym. Studies show that just 20 minutes of vigorous exercise can boost your mood for hours afterward. Most of us spend at least 20 minutes a day on useless activities, like judging other people’s Facebook posts or debating whether to put pants on in the morning. So why can’t we exercise for just 20 minutes a day and do our minds and souls a huge favor?
If we can begin to accept the premise that working out has a slim chance of helping us slim down (get it?), but that regular exercise has a near 100% success rate of improving our mental health and helping us live more relaxed and productive lives, then we can start reframing how we think about exercise.
For me, there was a time when I used to workout vigorously 5-6 days a week with the hopes of building a six-pack and Dwight Howard-level arms. Not so much anymore. These days, I try to exercise regularly but not excessively, and I do it because I love the way a good sweat sesh makes me feel afterwards--strong, glowing, stress-free, happy. A tough workout also makes me feel super confident and takes me from Bridget Jones to Bey in six seconds.
While I do enjoy exercising, there are several things I’d like to improve about my exercise regimen. I’m feeling a bit bored with my current routine, and I’d like to try out some new workout moves. I also want to challenge myself a bit more--improve my endurance, push my heart rate a bit higher, lift heavier weights, and most importantly, be more consistent with the frequency of my workouts.
With these goals in mind, I set out to exercise every day of this past week for at least 30 minutes each day. And with each workout, I would do one of the following: (a) try a new exercise, (b) try a more advanced version of an exercise I regularly perform, or (c) perform a particular exercise for more reps or more time than I typically do.
My Week of Daily Workouts
On day 1, I exercise at home for exactly 30 minutes. Not a minute more or less. For background, I have a gym membership but I have not used it in over six months.
I stopped going to my gym for a variety of half-assed reasons: the walk to and from my gym, plus the time it takes to throw my stuff in a locker, takes up a full 20 minutes; it’s painfully disgusting to walk to and from the gym in the dead of winter or in the middle of summer; and, my favorite area to exercise at my gym--the functional training area--is usually occupied by group classes in the morning.
I know, I know. These aren’t the best excuses for skipping the gym. I could run to the gym instead of walk to speed things up, I could shower at the gym and head directly to work to save the amount of time I spend walking, and I could just join those group classes. But I wouldn’t be writing this blog post if I had already ditched all of my excuses!
For my day workout on day 1, I push myself to do a slightly more challenging version of a couple exercises, and I increase the reps on a few others, including deadlifts. This extra push makes me feel slightly better about myself than usual. Later in the day, I inadvertently end up walking a lot, close to 90 minutes in total, which is a definitely a form of vigorous exercise during the summer in New York City.
I consider skipping my workout for day 2 because, let’s face it, I already exercised twice on day 1. Luckily, a sense of guilt and a cheerful Latin dance-y ringtone force me to drag my ass out of bed. Once I’m out of bed, I am embarrassed by how sore my hamstrings are from yesterday’s deadlifts using very, very light weights. This is a crystal clear sign that I need to challenge my body more often. Later that day, I make a home visit to one of my client’s apartments, which is a 30-minute walk each way. Hooray for more sweaty exercising!
By day 3, I have a serious case of déjà vu: I consider skipping my morning workout again because (1) I basically did two workouts the day before and (2) now, my entire body--not just my hamstrings--is sore. However, I use all of my energy to push through the laziness. I could not be more proud of myself. Except that all of that pushing leaves me with very little energy to actually exercise.
By day 4, I expect that the immense hatred I am feeling towards exercise will dissipate, but I am wrong. It’s a Saturday, though, so it is relatively easy for me to get through a 30 minute upper body circuit. Instead of going into work afterwards, I can just sit in my smelly workout clothes while leisurely enjoying a smoothie bowl.
By day 6, I wonder Why am I still doing this? For my health? For my pride? For a measly blog post? My lower body is painfully sore, and all I want to do is simultaneously foam roll my glutes and eat a donut.
By day 7, I realize that the ultimate workout challenge requires me to do the dreaded: return to my gym after a six-month absence. I should be concerned about whether my squishy body will be able to handle vigorous exercising and heavy weightlifting (after all, my heaviest dumbbells at home are a measly eight-pounds), but I’m more concerned about explaining my absence to gym staff and fellow gym-goers. After concocting several stories, I come up with what I believe to be a plausible explanation: I was training for the 2016 Olympics with my trainer at a fancy boutique gym, but an old ankle injury prevented me from continuing with my Olympian training. Also, I was afraid of getting the Zika virus in Rio. To my greatest surprise, however, not a single person at the gym inquires about my absence. I am deeply offended, even though I recognize not a single person at the gym.
Consistency is key. I know this sounds like the slogan for a revamped Reebok ad campaign, but it’s true. The more consistently I exercise, the more I consider exercise to be my default--something I do regularly, like brushing my teeth. The more consistently I exercise, the less likely I am to make excuses to skip my workout.
Don’t fear the gym. It might have taken me six months to return to the gym, but my return was triumphant. I forgot how much I enjoy a challenging workout, one that involves kettlebell swings and box jumps, not just bicep curls with eight-pound dumbbells.
Hold yourself accountable. The only way I got myself to exercise consistently for seven days straight was to hold myself accountable to this blog. Your accountability mechanism could be finding a workout buddy, participating in an office weight loss challenge, taking progress photos, or signing up for one of those apps that pay you to exercise.
Do you exercise for your mental health? How do you keep yourself accountable to exercise? I would love to hear your tips!
For this next week, I’ll be combining lessons from mindfulness with a healthy diet. My goal is to eat mindfully for the entire week. Curious to know what that entails? Stay tuned.