Exercise and Mental Health
Several years ago I met an acquaintance as I was headed out of the grocery store and she was headed in. She was obviously on her way home from exercising at the gym. We chatted for a minute about her regular trips to they gym and about physical fitness in general. “a gym membership is cheaper than depression meds.” she quipped. I laughed and we parted to go our separate ways.
I’ve thought about that conversation quite a bit lately, particularly on the days when I’m pounding my feet on a treadmill. Over the past several months it has become clear that I have two choices to regulate my emotional state. I can either exercise three to five days per week, or I can find a doctor and get anti anxiety/depression medication. When I try to avoid those choices my emotional state vacillates wildly. My capabilities change. I hate it. I don’t think it is fair. I know that declaring life as unfair makes me sound five years old and I’m mad about that too. I remember the days when I was an extremely stable person emotionally, but things are different now. So I get mad about it and I use that anger to get me to the gym where I’m allowed to be angry at every running footstep I need to take.
I choose exercise, it has better side effects. When I’m not being angry that life is not fair, I am able to be very grateful that exercise does work. Not everyone is so fortunate. I know people who struggle with brain imbalances much worse than mine. I also know that my choices may change in the future. Physiology and psychology are in constant flux. There may come a day when instead of either/or I’m faced with and. In the meantime, I’m once again being mindful and getting my exercise, because taking two weeks off landed me in a place where I wondered if I was going crazy.
I finally understand the quip my acquaintance made. She was not joking at all. She masked it as a joke, passing it off lightly because we didn’t know each other well and parking lots are not good for deep conversation. Now I understand her, because on the way home from the gym I stop at the store and run into acquaintances.
“Oh you’re so good. I should get to the gym more.” They say.
I smile and sometimes I make a light comment, because I don’t want them to feel bad about their choices. My exercise is not about being good and doing the things I’m supposed to do. It is definitely not about being better than anyone else. If I could choose to stay home and stay emotionally stable, I would do that. It would be so much easier. Instead I run because running is better than feeling like I might be going crazy. Running is better than crying.
It feels wrong to be praised for this thing I feel forced to do and which I often do resentfully. I also know how recently I’ve become regular about exercise and how easy it is for me to fall back out of the pattern. Exercise is a new habit and it wears on me in unfamiliar ways. Howard thinks that the resentment will wear away and exercise can be something I just enjoy. Maybe he is right. I know that used to be true. Perhaps it will be true again. A few times I’ve felt the edges of enjoyment, I definitely feel satisfaction some days. Mostly I just get moving because whether or not I enjoy it does not matter as much as the fact that I need it. Perhaps these other emotions will emerge when exercise is a familiar part of my routines, like a comfortable pair of shoes. Right now I need to be grouchy about exercise, because the anger gets me out the door, and when I come home I am more able to do everything else.
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