Covid Mental Health Challenge #9- Exercise your way to mental AND physical fitness
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
When the Covid epidemic first hit in March of 2020, several interesting things became hard to find, (besides toilet paper). Bicycles became hard to find worldwide, and and bicycle makers shut down. Exercise equipment, especially dumbbells became very scarce. And swimming pools and trampolines were harder and harder to come by.
People were stuck in their homes, unable to go out or work, and one of the first things they turned to was exercise equipment. I remember going to local parks in my area and seeing an unusually large number of people out there walking, cycling, or just sitting around. Eventually our park district had to shut down the parks completely, only opening them up with new social distancing restrictions.
Many people have discovered the secret elixir that improves so many mental illnesses- exercise. I've been a big proponent of regular, moderate exercise ever since my first bouts of depression. My weapon of choice has been my bicycle, upon which I've already logged over 1400 miles so far in 2020. For others, walking does the job, while running is more popular than ever. While the benefits of physical exercise are fantastic, they do fade after a period, and they only treat the symptoms, not the causes. To get at the causes of serious mental illnesses, therapy is still the best option.
The biggest jolt to mental well-being from exercise are endorphins, feel-good chemicals that are released by your brain. Endorphins are a natural chemical produced by the central nervous system during exercise that's similar in structure to morphine. They are wonderful pain-killers and stress-relievers, and can give the body a feeling of well-being and even euphoria. You don't need to run a marathon to experience an endorphin high. Twenty to thirty minutes of sustained aerobic exercise can trigger the release of endorphins, whose effects can be felt for hours after stopping exercise.
Evolutionarily, humans are built to move. When we move, we feel good (as long as the movement stays at healthy levels). When we sit still for long periods of time, we can start experiencing negative thoughts and emotions, especially if we feel trapped in the environment we are stuck inside of. A good session of aerobic exercise can start a ripple effect that can increase general mental and physical health for long periods. Here are some of the things exercise has been claimed to help with.
- Reduces stress by relieving tension and relaxing muscles
- Boosts mood, helping moderate symptoms of both anxiety and depression
- Increased self esteem that comes with better fitness
- Opportunities to socialize and find more friends via exercise
- Improved sleep quality
- Boosts brainpower by creating new brain cells
- Slows cognitive decline and improves memory
- Boosts creative energy
- Builds resilience
- Improves hearth health and circulation, increasing mental energy
(One thing exercise does NOT do significantly is help with weight loss. I discussed that in the Covid Weight Loss Challenge here.)
I can attest to all those effects and more. When I can't exercise much, such as in the winter, I feel more lethargic and tired. Going on a lengthy bike ride not only raises my mood and improves my energy, it also helps me with some of my best and most creative ideas.
There is one warning, however. Endorphins are a powerful drug, and powerful drugs can result in addiction problems. There is such a thing as exercise addiction, and it can be seen when exercise becomes all-consuming, taking up most people's spare time and their every waking thought. Where is the line that divides a healthy amount of exercise from an unhealthy one? That differs for many people, but the key is to listen to one's body and its aches and pains to see if you're overdoing it. Life is all about balance, and an unbalanced obsession with exercising for hours at a time, and thinking about it even more, threatens to crowd out work, friends, sleep, relaxation, and family. A healthy, balanced, lifestyle is the goal here.
What are the biggest roadblocks to exercise? There are many, but the four biggest ones that come to mind are time, money, environment, and inertia. Time today is in many ways more precious than money. There are too many distractions waiting to take up our limited amounts of waking, productive time. It's easy to get lost in the busyness of everyday life and forget basic health maintenance. Exercise takes time and effort, but it gives so much more back. Ditch the screens for an hour a day (estimates are we spend some 11 hours a day staring at them) and schedule some time for yourself and your mental fitness.
Joining a gym is expensive and out of reach for many people. Neighborhoods may not be safe everywhere to walk or jog, and this is a real problem. Everyone deserves an opportunity to exercise safely and affordably, and local governments owe it to their citizens to make this a huge priority, especially in the age of Covid-19. Don't let money hold you back- the costs of not exercising- mental and physical ailments that can be debilitating- is worse than any costs you would pay to get fitter.
By environmental roadblocks, I mainly mean the people that are around you. (Although if you live in areas that are too hot or cold to exercise that's something to work around) Your friends and family- the people you surround yourself with most of the time are the ones who set the pace when it comes to physical activity. If they are exercising regularly, then most likely so are you. But if you come from an obese environment, where foods and screens are more important than exercise, that is a hard obstacle to overcome. The best way around it is to find someone, anyone who sets a good example and spend more time learning from them. Teachers and schools can make a huge difference here, as can books, libraries, and the internet.
And then there is inertia, the enemy of all mental illnesses. Isaac Newton's first law of physics, also known as the law of inertia, states that an object that is at rest tends to stay at rest. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, unless they are acted upon by an unbalanced force. Inertia keeps us stuck. Our brains are wired to look for confirming information (aka confirmation bias) that tells us that where we are is perfectly okay and there's no need to change. Sometimes it takes a sudden disaster or change to break up the inertia and change the dynamic.
All this means is that to overcome inertia, besides waiting for a calamity, is to take small, tiny steps in the direction you want to go, tricking inertia into coming along with you. Take a five minute walk. Ask your friends that exercise what they do and how they got started. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or park a section over to force yourself to walk a bit. If you can take small, determined steps, preferably with the encouragement of someone else, there's no limit to where you might end up.
There are ten excellent benefits from exercise listed above, all of which can improve your mental health in wonderful ways. There are many different options to find the type of exercise that best fits your situation. My best advice is to find the thing that you love to do the most, because motivation can sometimes be a problem. People get tired and life is too damn busy. If you hate your routine eventually you'll give up on it. But if you find something that lifts you up physically, mentally, and even spiritually, you'll do whatever it takes to keep on doing it.
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The above information is provided courtesy of the author who has done his best to be factual. You are still responsible for interpreting and checking those facts elsewhere, and I make no representations that I am a mental health expert beyond what I presented. Thank you.