Image by Daniel Reche from Pixabay

I have read in several self-help books on mental health, like Edmund Bourne’s Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, the importance of physical health when dealing with a mental health challenge. The MedlinePlus website lists the benefits of exercising. The HelpGuide website outlines the benefits of exercising on mental health. The facilitators in the course I am taking on living with chronic conditions said exercise is usually the best thing you can do to help yourself.

From my experience, and from what I have heard or read, the person is a combination of several factors: mental, physical, spiritual, social, and so on. A long-lasting debate in Psychology is whether your genetics (nature) or your environment (nurture) is the main factor as to why we become who we are. Recently, it seems this debate is fading into the background as people realize that both genetics and environment affect who we end up being.

It is the same with other factors as well, such as mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual. They all are factors as to how our life develops, and who we become. They interact with each other, so if you work on one area of your life, like exercise, the other areas of yourself, like mental and emotional, improve also. The guiding principle for me is “moderation in all things”. Rather than emphasizing one aspect or another, I try to address each aspect or area. Our physical health can have a huge effect on our mental and emotional health, and visa Versa. Some cultures, such as the African, tend to express mental health challenges in the body, as they complain of various aches and pains that are actually mental or emotional issues at the core.

My approach to exercise is similar to my approach to all things: one day at a time, little steps for little feet, one step at a time, and progress not perfection. I definitely do not adopt the attitude “go big or go home” in any area of my life, and exercise is no exception. I go by the principle, if it hurts – stops, instead of the “no pain, no gain” attitude towards working out. I would rather exercise most or all days, at least a little bit, instead of pushing myself too much one day, and then not exercise for a week because I am too sore.

If you are younger or in good health, you might want to consider individual or team sports for getting your exercise. If you don’t know which exercise to take up, consider taking up some exercise or sport you did when you were a child, teenager or younger adult. Here is a list of exercises to consider if you are lacking ideas:

  • walking or running on a treadmill, or outside.
  • Hiking.
  • Bicycling outside or on an indoor exercise bike.
  • Swimming.
  • Downhill or cross country skiing.
  • Weight lifting – even small weights can make a difference.
  • Dancing to your favorite music or to an exercise video like this one by Richard Simmons.
  • Join a gym or city rec plex.
  • Enroll in an exercise or fitness class.
  • Martial arts such as karate, judo or kickboxing.
  • Yoga, in a class, or a youtube or DVD video.
  • Buy some exercise equipment such as the Total Gym.
  • Google “exercise”.
  • Go to the Youtube website and google “exercise”.
  • Go to a store website, such as Amazon, and search for “exercise”.
  • Visit a sports store or big department store, and browse through the section that has exercise equipment.

My brother, a long-distance marathon runner, told me he gets sick when he runs a lot further or longer than he usually does. I have taken his advice, and even on days when I feel better and feel like doing a lot more, I quit soon after I get to my normal quitting point.

I have found the following advantages of my philosophy for exercising:

  • Exercising is generally a positive, even pleasant or joyful experience, instead of something I associate with pain, work, and discomfort.
  • Because I have a generally positive attitude towards exercising, it is easier for me to force myself, on those days I have to, to exercise.
  • I often feel more positive and more energy after exercising, because I am stopping when I first get tired, instead of pushing far past my tiredness point.

Regarding motivation, I have found that I usually have to push myself to get started exercising. Actually, I find I have to push myself to do most things anyways and suspect this is a symptom of chronic mental health issues. With exercise, like with other things, once I have exercised 10 minutes or less, inertia seems to take over, and I don’t have to try as hard.

This isn’t always true with all types of exercise for me. I do yoga for my lower back pain, and most days, I have to maintain a decent level of effort to get through the different yoga exercises. Fortunately, my mood improves once I am done. This mood improvement after exercising is a reason I use to motivate myself to do the yoga exercises.

If you have difficulties motivating yourself to exercise, try writing down all the reasons or benefits for exercising. Keep this list nearby when you lack motivation before or during the exercise. If you stop halfway through and don’t want to continue to exercise, glance at your list to help push yourself through the last half of your exercises.

Another trick for maintaining motivation I got from David Burn’s book Feeling Good. On a piece of paper, write down the task you want to do, like exercise. Then next to it, write down, on a scale of 0 – 10, how motivated you feel. Do the same with how hard you think it will be, on a scale of 0 – 10. After you finish the task, write down how motivated you are after exercising, and how hard it actually was, on a scale of 0 – 10. Chapter 5 in the book Feeling Good has more methods to overcome procrastination.

I find it important to go at a pace or length of time I can maintain regularly. The Youtube videos from Hasfit I found for lower back pain, went at a faster pace then I could go. I was experiencing soreness, and unable to exercise every day. So I learned to stop the video on my tablet, during the video, so I could exercise at my own speed. The coach on the Youtube video would call for 12 repetitions, but I was doing only six repetitions because that was my limit.

In time, I could do the exercises at the same speed as the video and with the same number of repetitions. Like this video says, you’ll feel happy when you realize that you can do something you couldn’t do two weeks ago (or two months ago for older people). As you exercise more, you will get stronger, can last longer, and feel more energized afterward instead of tired out.

If you find exercising boring, use your phone or mp3 player to play this audio from sage-and-intrepid.com, an audiobook or music. Some exercise equipment, like treadmills or exercise bikes, have places to put a book or tablet.

If you are exercising in colder weather, a trick I learned from my college girlfriend, is to layer clothing. Instead of wearing a winter jacket and a t-shirt, you wear a light jacket, and several long-sleeved shirts or sweaters. You are less likely to perspire, and if you do, you can take off a layer, and see if that helps you stop perspiring.

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