Health

How exercise has helped my mental health

ev-625717-unsplash The Growing Up Guide

Like most people, I have struggled with my mental health. Very often I feel that I have too much energy inside of my body, and with no better use for it, it presents itself as frustration and worry. At other times, I have no energy and just want to stay in bed for three days.

When I was in high school, I was diagnosed with an eating disorder and depression. There were days when I thought that nothing could ever get better, and that I couldn’t break out of the downward spiral I had trapped myself in.

Five years later, I feel like my usual happy self again, but I still do have times when it all gets too much. It’s hard for me to judge how much of this is pathological, and how much is completely normal. I don’t think the two are necessarily mutually exclusive.

In the last few months, I began exercising more. I started off jogging a couple of times a week, and occasionally swimming.

Now, I’m at the gym twice a week, comfortable running up to 20km, and training for my first triathlon.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve attempted to ‘get into exercise’. I often go through phases of obsessively going to the gym and trying to run every day. It usually lasts about three weeks before I give up completely.

The reason I believe I’m sticking with it this time is that I’m not solely driven by seeing results. Before, exercising stemmed from insecurities about my own body and a desire to change. I wanted to cut the fat and get great abs.

There’s nothing wrong with this being your end goal, but for me, I would get frustrated when I couldn’t see results, and guilty when I eventually gave up. I felt like I was working against my body, rather than working with it, and my motivation came from self-hatred rather than self-love.

Of course, I would still love washboard abs. But what drives me now is the sense of achievement. I want to push myself further, not to look a certain way, but to be more powerful. I want to lift heavier weights, run faster, swim further – just to prove to myself that I can.

The Growing Up Guide

Since I’ve started regularly exercising, I feel less sluggish on my low days. I’ve been sleeping much better. My confidence and energy levels are both higher than they’ve been in a long time.

On one level, I think exercise is just good because it gets me out of the house. I have a mental release from working, and a physical release for all that energy that’s been building up. There’s clear research into the effects of physical activity for reducing stress. Exercise produces endorphins, the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter, and breaks down stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.

But more than that, exercise gives me control. I have a sense of purpose when I focus on my goals, and structure in order to achieve them.

You can’t be pumped up and ready to work out all the time. Before, the moment I encountered any difficulties, I’d pack it in. Now I’ve learned to listen to my body. If I’m having a day where I can’t bear the thought of leaving bed, then I let myself take it easy. If I want to eat 2,000 calories worth of carbs, then I eat 2,000 calories in carbs. But I still make myself to hit my exercise goals, even if that just means reaching my step count for the day, or going for a 10-minute jog. Then when I do have the energy again to push myself further, I harness that.

Change doesn’t happen over night, but even after a few short months, I’m increasing my endurance. The stronger I become physically, the stronger my mind seems to become too. I’m less stressed, less anxious and much accepting of myself.

I’m not claiming that exercise cured me. Far from it. Therapy, friends and family, and a change of environment were all just as (if not more) influential as exercise. Nor am I saying that if you start exercising, it will solve all of your problems.

But for me, it’s given me a control over my life that I’ve never really felt before. I’m working with myself to hit my goals, and I’m enjoying the journey.

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