Mental Health Matters: Yes, there's a lot of reasons to stop avoiding regular exercise

Heather Loeb
Guest columnist

When I was in second grade I asked my mom for a note to exempt me from gym class because I wasn’t “a P.E. kind of girl.”

I never got the note (thanks a lot, mom), but maybe that’s a good thing.

I played sports until high school, then I became inactive. My friends forced me to go to the gym in college, but after I graduated I worked out only sporadically. I never thought it was a big deal even though my psychiatrist and therapist urged me to do it for my mental health. I nodded and smiled while they tried to convince me and then plopped back on the couch.

The National Institutes of Health recommend exercising for at least 30 minutes three times a week.

I know that exercise is good for me. I know that getting outdoors in the sunshine and fresh air is worthwhile, but a part of me doesn’t want me to take care of myself. Doesn’t believe I’m worth it. That’s the depression talking.

Just a reminder, the National Institutes of Health suggest exercising for at least 30 minutes three times a week. Benefits include reducing anxiety, depression and negative mood. Other advantages: 

  • Improved sleep
  • Increased interest in sex
  • Better endurance
  • Stress relief
  • Improvement in mood
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Reduced tiredness that can increase mental alertness
  • Weight reduction
  • Reduced cholesterol and improved cardiovascular fitness

After I had my first child I started working out with a moms group before signing up for a 5K. I trained seriously even though it was “only” three miles. On race day I finished with a sense of accomplishment that was foreign to me.

I didn’t enjoy it for long because weeks later a severe depressive episode hit me hard. I didn’t have the strength to get out of bed, much less work out.

That’s what’s so frustrating about depression — when you need endorphins the most, depression decimates your motivation. And sometimes your will to live. I know now that while I feel good, I should exercise regularly. If nothing more than to stave off another depressive episode.

Regular exercise - even a short walk around the block - can help improve your mood and so much more.

Exercising is not just about feeling good when you have a mental disorder, it’s about survival. My mental health is precarious, so I rely on structure, routine and good health to get me through the bad times.

People like me can’t solely depend on sunshine and positive thoughts. We must make sometimes difficult life and behavioral changes. Like my therapist says, we must bend and twist to find the light, like a plant.

And some of us must run for our lives, literally. I plan on running another 5K soon.

If you’re struggling right now, I hear you. I see you. If it’s too hard to exercise for the recommended amount, that’s OK. Do what you can. Sometimes even small steps seem hard, but they get you to your goal eventually.

My tips on exercising when you’re depressed:

  • Set attainable goals.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t reach your goals right away.
  • Pick an exercise/activity that you enjoy.
  • Get a support system.
  • Sleep in your exercise clothes and work out in the morning.
  • Reward yourself.
  • Listen to fun, upbeat music.
  • Don’t look at exercising as a punishment.
  • If all else fails, try taking a walk if you’re able.

Always consult a doctor about your health and workout regimen.

If you’re having suicidal thoughts, visit the nearest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Heather Loeb

For more than 20 years, Heather Loeb has experienced major depression, anxiety and a personality disorder, while also battling the stigma of mental health. She is the creator of Unruly Neurons (www.unrulyneurons.com), a blog dedicated to normalizing depression and a member of State Rep. Todd Hunter’s Suicide Prevention Taskforce.  

MIND MATTERS

Now more than ever we need to take care of our mental health. Opinion Contributor Heather Loeb discusses why and explores other important mental health topics in this special series.