Monday, March 25, 2013

Exercise for mental (and physical) health

My first 5k in 2011

With the approach of summer swimsuit season, the focus of exercise this time of year and, frankly, almost always is about weight loss and looking good in skimpy clothes. And while I’m an advocate of healthy weight and doing your best to look good, I’m an even bigger advocate for exercise as part of overall mental and physical health.

A few months ago, shortly after the horrible school shooting in Connecticut, I wrote a blog post about the importance of diet and exercise in preventing and managing mental illness. To me, being a contemplative carnivore goes far beyond just eating the right things and doing right by animals. It means living an overall lifestyle of health, wellness and peace that is good for the body, good for the mind and good for the community and environment.

As I noted in that post, my own family has battled various levels of depression, substance abuse and mental illness. By the grace of God, I do not. However, I do believe that I’ve managed to avoid these challenges largely because of my dietary and exercise choices, and much of the research I’ve read indicates that medical studies agree.

But just how much can exercise help the brain? It turns out exercise, and particularly aerobic exercise, can help battle depression, anxiety, substance abuse, aging and help us learn and sleep effectively. In fact, for about half the population currently on medication, exercise is all that’s needed to manage the health issues we have. For the other half, many are able to reduce reliance on medication or find superior relief through a combination of medication and exercise.

Don’t believe me? I encourage you to read Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Written by Dr. John Ratey, a psychiatrist who specializes in anxiety disorders and uses exercise to treat his patients, it’s a pretty mind-blowing book that examines exactly how exercise impacts the chemistry of our brain. I’ve read it twice already and plan to make it annual reading – it’s that amazing.

My Fitness Regimen
For several years, running has been my fitness activity of choice. Though I started running out of a lifelong embarrassment of being a bad runner, over time it has evolved into my main source of stress relief and mental stability. If I’m having a bad day at work, I look forward to my after-work run to burn off all that negativity and restore mental peace. If I’m especially tired, I put on my running shoes and commit to at least 20 minutes of exercise knowing I will get a better night of sleep. If I’m having an “I’m ugly” day, getting a run in makes me feel strong, accomplished and appreciative of what my body is capable of doing. These days, if I don’t run at least three times a week, I don’t feel well. It is truly that critical to my overall well-being.

I have recently added a once-per-week barre class that uses ballet, pilates and yoga techniques to build strength and flexibility. The challenge to my body and mind along with the supportive community of women has been a great complement to my running.

Whether you’re an avid exerciser or not, I encourage you to read Spark to learn more about the benefits of exercise, which go far beyond fitting into a smaller size of jeans.

If you exercise, what is your current regimen for staying fit? If you don’t exercise, what are your barriers to getting fit?

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  1. Thanks for this recommendation! I can't wait to read it!

  2. You're welcome! It really is a great book and very eye-opening. Major motivation to keep working out!