Talking mental health: Be active

I love to sweat! A good sweat for me means I’ve worked my body well. Unfortunately, I don’t sweat as much as I would like or need.  I often hear myself saying, “I’ve got to get back on track” with exercise and nutrition. Then frustration kicks in and I think, “why can’t I just stay on track?”

I frequently fall off the exercise wagon despite knowing and experiencing its unequivocal physical and mental health benefits. Regular exercise reduces muscle tension so you feel less uptight; it increases oxygen in the blood and brain so you can concentrate and increases endorphins, which improve your sense of well-being. It also helps release pent up frustrations and helps your body metabolize adrenaline and thyroxin more quickly so you’re not in a constant state of vigilance.

It reduces insomnia, increases self-esteem and memory and gives you a greater sense of control over stress. Physical activity prevents and reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Despite all these great benefits, most of us still struggle to make and keep exercise a habit.  It’s easy to fall back into sedentary existence whenever our daily routine changes and when we let thoughts like “I don’t have enough time” and “I feel too tired” prevent us from exercising. The hidden meaning of those thoughts is “exercise is not a priority” and they ignore the fact that we can exercise in spite of feeling tired and we don’t even have to leave the comfort of our home. Get online, there’s a myriad of free at-home workouts to choose from.

The key is to making exercise a habit is to constantly re-commit to the process and re-commit to the physical and mental benefits of exercise every time we fall out of habit. It becomes easier once you get past the initial inertia. Try to calm the self-blame and discouragement as this may decrease your ability to maintain the effort. We all experience problems when making change. Lapses are normal and part of the process. It’s important to start slow as not to prematurely give up on the idea of exercise. Set realistic goals for time and frequency.

For optimal benefits to your mental health, Smith (2006) recommends 2.5 to 7.5 hours of moderate physical exercise a week. However, any exercise is better than none and short bouts add up! Give yourself a month of committing to your program despite aches and pains. By the end of that month you may notice some of the benefits mentioned above and this can be self-motivating for the next month.

You can also keep a record of your exercise as this will help you to see improvement in strength and stamina. Noting excuses for not exercising can bring into awareness sabotaging self-talk that you can work through by identifying positive reasons for exercise the next time excuses creep in.

In addition, discomfort and lack of motivation are to be expected. Exercise is about the process, not just the product. See if you can find an activity that you enjoy and your resistance will be more easily managed.

Remember: exercise for mood management includes getting back on track once the routine is broken, setting realistic and small goals, planning your exercise and making it part of your day, and identifying and modifying the negative thinking that gets in your way.

Sam Katerji works at Wilfrid  Laurier University’s counselling services

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