I Do It For Me: How Exercise Lifts Mental Health

“3 more, 2 more, 1 more, done!” My trainer holds his hand up and I high-five him with force. Slap! I never end on a low note—some weak, noiseless pat on the hand. It’s not who I am. I could be catching my breath or blowing pouring sweat off my face, but I am not leaving my workout crawling out the door. Nope! Not this girl!

My relationship with physical activity hasn’t always been so enthusiastic. As a child, I was diagnosed with hypotonia, which means that I have low muscle tone. I’ve had to do some form of physical therapy for most of my life. Usually, I was able to find an activity I enjoyed enough to maintain my strength—horseback riding, pilates, yoga—but, in the past few years, my college and work schedules have made it harder to keep up.

Recently, I realized that my yoga classes weren’t enough to keep me feeling the way I wanted to feel. So, I got a recommendation for a personal trainer, Mike, from my physical therapist.

I wasn’t sure about working with a trainer. When I’d previously tried training in a gym, I’d had some minor injuries, so I never went back. I trusted my physical therapist’s referral, though, so I decided to give it another shot. My first session with Mike involved plenty of squats, and I was pouring with sweat by the end of the 30-minute session. Boy, did I hate it. I don’t like to be pushed. But I didn’t quit. It’s not who I am. I returned for a second session, and then a third, and soon I was hooked!

I started noticing that I would fall asleep more quickly, and I no longer woke up so exhausted that I couldn’t get out of bed. Unlike my previous experiences at the gym, I wasn’t injured, in pain, or extremely sore. In the past that would have dampened my mood tremendously; it would make me believe I was weak and fragile.

I told my trainer, “There has to be a secret to this. Why is resistance training all of a sudden working for me?” He answered, “Because we’re strengthening the small muscles to first support the larger ones. Most people don’t have the patience to take this approach.” Ah ha!

My mood was so much better after the sessions. I felt rejuvenated and grounded—conscious of my surroundings and of myself. I decided to research this feeling, and I discovered that many scientists have studied the link between exercise and mood. In her TED talk, “The Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise,” neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Suzuki says she found that one single workout immediately increases levels of your “feel-good” neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline.

Psychologist Dr. Sarah Gingell corroborates this in an article from Psychology Today, “Why Exercise Is So Essential For Mental Health,” where she says “Exercise is well known to stimulate the body to produce endorphins and enkephalins, the body’s natural feel-good hormones…” Clearly, scientists are seeing a link between physical activity and mental health.

That’s the reason why I feel so great after exercising. These feel-good hormones—little “pieces of happiness”—are traveling throughout my bloodstream, and there are more chemical messengers “communicating” to one another with by sending “positive messages” from one neuron to the next!

So, my body was sending itself positive messages, and I noticed that I started doing the same thing while exercising: repeating certain phrases to keep myself focused and dedicated. I would have an inner monologue of encouraging statements: “I am strong! I can. I can do this!” If I got tired doing something aerobically, I would tell myself, “You’re almost there. All you have to do is reach the finish line.” My focus on losing five pounds wasn’t as important to me anymore.

My mindset changed to “I love my body, and I want to keep up feeling good. I deserve to give myself the best possible treatment.”  

With some more research, I discovered that these phrases also have a psychological purpose. Dr. Gingell states in her article that the hippocampus—the area of the brain involved in memory, emotion regulation, and learning—is a critical part of the brain for mental health. She notes that poor mental health is “cognitive inflexibility that keeps us repeating unhelpful behaviors, restrict our ability to process or even acknowledge new information, and reduces our ability to use what we already know to see new solutions or to change.”

Studies (such as Dr. Suzuki’s research) have shown that exercise supports and enhances the reproduction of the hippocampal neurons (or “neurogenesis”). The more hippocampal neurons are created, the greater ability to store new memories and “[to keep] old and new memories separate and distinct.” The production of neurons “allows a healthy level of flexibility in the use of existing memories, and in the flexible processing of new information.”

My motivating phrases are due to my hippocampal neurogenesis as my thinking and processing become more flexible! I am already noticing how this has begun to influence how I respond to stressful and anxiety producing situations for me.

exercise lifts Mental Health

When I’m stuck in life—feeling afraid of going out on my own, feeling like I’m not strong enough to accomplish my goals, frozen in fear—I recall the moment of  a sticky spot in an exercise. I think of that point where I feel like get that last pull-up, and how I make the decision to push forward and cheer myself on. In seconds I’ve made it through and finish the final rep. Those moments are tough, but the sense of accomplishment is worth the hard work. Now, in times of anxiety, I think of that last pull-up, and I know I will make it through. It’s who I am.

First Published on Metiza November 10, 2018

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