What Exercise Has Taught Me About Mental Health

     Have you ever had fun being awkward? I do, every week. I call cues and stand in front of a group of people on one leg with the other leg, well…it may just be all over the place! A few years ago I would have never seen my quiet self as a fitness instructor. Now I get the opportunity to challenge any assumptions I have made about myself or anyone else has made of me and talk loudly all while standing on one leg. Yes, I have become a departure from the timid school kid I once was.

     For quite a while, I had enjoyed hanging out on my mat in the back of the yoga studio as a student in PiYo Live. (PiYo Live is a dynamic total body workout inspired by pilates and yoga.) It was a class I enjoyed and saw myself getting stronger quickly. Thanks to the encouragement of my instructors, I pursued certification last November and started teaching PiYo Live. As a therapist, it has been a great opportunity to reflect on the personal growth that has resulted from the experience. So much of what I see in my counseling office can actually be related to the lessons I have learned from exercise.

Comfort Zones

     What is off-limits for you? Twenty years ago I kept myself holed-up in a room, working out on my own. When I finally took the plunge into group exercise, I learned how creative it can be. But first, I had to let go of the notion that I was going to only workout solo. This activity forced me out of a very limited social setting and into a more dynamic environment. Before I had the same old workouts, with little variation. Being open to attending group exercise allowed me the diversity that comes with having a variety of instructors.

Perfectionism

“Because PiYo Live is focused on balance, the movements in the workout create plenty of opportunities for self-correction by wobbling. Not only does this build core strength, but it also whittles away at any self-consciousness you may have.”

     Are you a self-described perfectionist? Do you compare yourself to others? As a part of group exercise, I was forced to come to terms with performing in front of others. When your desire to be healthy, enjoy the workout, grow personally, or (fill in the blank), outweighs concerns over what you look like in front of others, your workout becomes more about the moment and less about what others think. The first step is to welcome being vulnerable to the moment. Get in tune with what you are doing. Through my own experience I get to see the benefits of wobbling. Because PiYo Live is focused on balance, the movements in the workout create plenty of opportunities for self-correction by wobbling. Not only does this build core strength, but it also whittles away at any self-consciousness you may have. You learn to laugh at yourself. Being able to laugh at oneself in a non-self-deprecating way is healthy. By the way, you will probably find that others are laughing at themselves too! See! They are so busy trying to focus on what they are doing, that they don’t even notice you, which is another theme I see often from a counseling perspective. So many struggle with self-consciousness that they think that people are judging them, when in reality they are so busy thinking about what they are doing, or being self-critical, that they do not notice others.

Balance

“Finding your balance with exercise is very much like finding it with your mental health.”

     An interesting dynamic that occurs with exercise is learning to push yourself to your edge. Finding your edge can be tricky. Oftentimes bootcamp style workout are not sustainable for people, they are pushing themselves too hard to ever want to do it for the foreseeable future. On the other end of the spectrum someone who exercises infrequently can become discouraged. Because the body is not used to it, it can become quite sore, and the mind says ‘no more’!

    Finding your balance with exercise is very much like finding it with your mental health. Are you paying attention to the red flags waving in your life? Low motivation, lack of or excessive appetite, inability to sleep – all of these are the mind’s way of communicating that something needs to change. More than likely there is an area that is not getting as much attention as it needs. How are you spiritually, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially? Are each of these facets of your life being tended to?

Giving Yourself Grace—Take a Break!

     It is one thing to workout, and another thing to workout while nursing an acute injury.  Just when you thought exercise was about making you faster and stronger, you may learn from an injury that the rest period is ever just as important as the workout itself.  The same is true with our mental health.  Taking a break is not a bad thing.  Giving yourself a break refreshes you and re-energizes the work that you will do later.  If you continue to run on empty you may begin to notice the red flags mentioned in the section above.

Modifications

     In group exercise, we have modifications when an activity does not suit someone due to injury or other issue.  Do you create modifications in your life?  If you know that you need more sleep each day, do still keep yourself up at night on-line or do you modify your schedule to allow yourself some “tech time” and more sleep?  Do you have trouble saying ‘no’ to others or do you honestly evaluate the situation and answer ‘no’?

Social Skills

“When you work some of that tension out with a group of others who are motivated to do the same, it can be less isolating and develop more of a sense of community.”

     Depression can be one of the most isolating experiences a person can have.  It is a conundrum because a.) you don’t want to be around others and b.) being around others is what helps one feel better.  In essence, you have to do what you do not want to do.

     When I take on a new client, one of the first things I learn about that person is their network.  Who are the people supporting this person?  What are their resources?  I usually find out that there is a lack of support, and I help this person build their network and resources.

     Exercise is a great way to develop a new support group.  When you work some of that tension out with a group of others who are motivated to do the same, it can be less isolating and develop more of a sense of community.

What has exercise taught me about mental health?

     I can take a step outside of my comfort zone as I allow myself to be far less than perfect while placing less emphasis on comparison and more on being with and enjoying others.  I can develop balance in my life as I give myself grace by using modifications, all the while growing relationships in the process.

Posted by Laura Ketchie | Counselor

Laura Ketchie, LPC is a counselor who specializes in women's issues. Her favorite verse is: "...whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you." Philippians 4:8-9

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