Here’s a question for you: Why do you exercise? Why do you try to stay in shape?
(And if you don’t exercise and hate everything about keeping fit, keep reading. You just may change your attitude.)
The fitness world seems to think that killer abs and skinny thighs should be motivation enough to put in hours of grinding away at the gym (by the way, I don’t know who came up with the idea of “the gap,” but it’s an concept that needs to be retired immediately). Your doctor may think that strengthening your heart, lowering cholesterol or preventing diabetes is plenty of reason to spend hours of your precious time sweating away at activities you hate. That wedding coming up or your high school reunion? Surely that’s strong enough motivation to stick to that healthy diet and shed some pounds, right?
I’m not feelin’ it.
Most of us have come to accept some form of the mind-body-spirit connection. Yet in our activities, we treat the three as separate units. We work out and jog for the body. We study for the mind and read self-help books or go to seminars for psychological well-being. We pray or meditate for the spiritual side of us.
We’ve set up false silos within a system that has no separation.
As fitness advocate David Patchell-Evans notes:
A lot of self-help methods are based on mental discipline or on working through emotional issues. What these approaches lack is an awareness of how the body is an integral part of the equation. The health of your body influences what you experience in your mind. There is no split. If you can engage your whole spirit in the pursuit of fitness — not just your intellect, not just your emotions — but instead everything inside you that is truly you, you’ll discover what it is to be a whole person.
What if exercising is as much about your emotional/mental/spiritual health as your physical health? It is.
Research shows that a fitness regimen isn’t just for your body. It’s definitely for your emotional and mental well-being as well.
For example, Dr. James Blumenthal, a clinical psychologist at Duke University, ran a study using sedentary adults with major depressive disorder. The subjects were randomly assigned to four different groups: supervised exercise, home-based exercise, antidepressant therapy or a placebo pill. After four months, participants in the exercise and antidepressant groups had higher rates of remission than did the subjects on the placebo. Blumenthal concluded that consistent exercise is comparable to antidepressants in treating major depressive disorder. And one year later, subjects who continued to exercise regularly had lower scores on depression measures than those who had not continued.
Dr. Michael Otto, a professor of psychology at Boston University and Dr. Jasper Smits, Co-Director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas researched physical fitness and anxiety. They divided 60 volunteers who had heightened sensitivity to anxiety (a group likely to progress to anxiety disorder down the line) into a control group and a group who entered an exercise program. After two weeks, the exercising group showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity compared with a control group.
What about mental clarity? A study from the International Journal of Workplace Health Management found that people who exercised on certain days were 23 percent more productive than they were on days they didn’t exercise. In another study published in Brain and Cognition, after just 30 minutes of bike riding, participants were able to complete a cognitive test faster yet with the same accuracy as they had done before exercising. Perceptual and Motor Skillspublished another study showing that women performed 20 percent better on memory tests after running on a treadmill than they did just before.
Researchers are still not totally clear on why exercise is so effective. Many people think endorphins play a role but little evidence supports that theory. Exercise increases serotonin (the mechanism antidepressants try to effect). Exercise can also help improve sleep patterns which enhances brain function.
A Princeton University study on stress with mice found that the mice who exercised were more able to handle stressful situations. They noted that exercise created new brain cells in these mice, young neurons that are “excitable,” firing off with little or no provocation. This puzzled researchers because having lots of excitable neurons firing all at once actually creates anxiety (though it also speeds up mental activity). But the exercising mice also had an abundance of other new neurons that release GABA, a neurotransmitter that keeps other neurons from firing easily. This quiets the brain and creates calm.
The technical reasons for the mental/emotional benefits of exercise may be complicated. But the bottom line is not: Exercise makes you feel better emotionally and perform better mentally almost instantly. You probably know this from your own experience.
Yet, Dr. Otto notes that people tend to avoid exercise when they’re feeling down or mentally sluggish. “Failing to exercise when you feel bad is like explicitly not taking an aspirin when your head hurts.”
We need to start thinking about exercise and fitness as the basis of our emotional and mental health, not just a way to get slimmer, trimmer and stronger physically. I confess, it took me a few decades to recognize this! But several years ago, I recognized that in my work and personal life, I had concentrated on my emotional, mental and spiritual “bodies” but had completely ignored my physical body. I demanded optimal performance out of myself without giving my physical body what it needed to support me. Since then, I’ve incorporated a fitness regimen that I call Empowerment Fit into my life and my work. It felt like this is finally the missing link to true empowerment.
That point in time was a choice point for me.
How about if you woke up tomorrow morning knowing you had a similar choice? You can support an upbeat, positive, productive day for yourself by exercising OR you can create a mediocre — or even rotten! — day by avoiding it. You can string a number of positive days together to create a more satisfying life or you can string lots of blah days together to create a life that feels disappointing.
A final reminder:
To your TOTAL empowerment!