Gotta move. Mental health and exercise

My idol, Callie Torres. Dancing in her pants. 

I was speaking to a friend yesterday who, like me, has some troubles with her mental health. She was explaining that her brain-space felt a bit cluttered and was expressing her belief that having a shower and tidying her room would help.

‘I just need to move,’ she sighed, ‘but I haven’t been very good at moving recently.’

The mental space associated with mental health problems can be one of stasis – the feeling that things will never change accompanied by the terrible fear of them changing at all. So I understood what she meant when she said she hadn’t been very good at moving.

When you’re struggling with your mental health, moving and exercise can be one of the things that is most difficult to do. It is also one of the best things you can do, given it’s positive effect on the brain space. So how do you start moving when you feel paralysed by your brain?

I recently read an excellent article on ‘The Pool,’ by Kat Brown who talked about her experience of SAD syndrome and how exercise had been an effective remedy for her. The article was entitled ‘The Anti-gym answer to exercise’ and addressed the fact that whilst exercise has been established as a valuable tool in boosting our mental health, sometimes our modern expectations of exercise are not very mental health friendly. Consider, for instance, the mirrored walls in gyms and studios. As a child and teenager I danced until I was eighteen years old with a dance school that, mercifully, met in a local village hall. When I went to University I joined the dance society that used an exercise studio above a gym. Lined with mirrors. Suddenly dance, which before had been all about how it made me feel, was all about how it made me look. For someone with an eating disorder this is not a mentally friendly environment. I didn’t last long. Or consider a running club or other sports club. I don’t like clubs because I’m naturally introverted and not athletic, but my friends who are tell me that clubs are excellent because they come with a sense of team, a social factor, and an opportunity to make friends and exercise at the same time. But what if you want to be athletic, but have social anxiety that makes interacting with new people exhausting and draining? Suddenly the price of those exercise-given endorphins seems very high. Or just consider the way we talk about exercise as a society. At this time of year you can’t move for marketing campaigns telling you to ‘just do it,’ huge billboards with energetic people jumping, and shop displays lined with tight fitting athletic gear. All of the language used to advertise ‘exercise’ is high energy, full on, over the top. It’s a lot of going for it and getting it done and jumping in.

But what if your mental health means that getting out of the house is impossible? What if you can’t get dressed? What then? How can you get those juicy endorphins that so many people rave about if you can’t bring yourself to pull on your trainers? What if you don’t have any trainers?

This is where Kat Brown’s article really comes into itself, addressing how you can work around ‘the brain spiders’ as she calls it, and find a way to exercise that doesn’t intimidate you or hoist impossible expectations onto your reality. She raves about working a simple stroll into your routine, finding some great short exercise videos on the internet, and running apps that make the process into a game in which you defeat zombies! (Seriously, check it out). Brown has found a way to exercise through the fog of her SAD syndrome, and that’s great for her.

These are some of the ways I work around the ‘brain spiders’ myself. Whilst I struggle with the gym (I am so prone to motion sickness that running on a treadmill makes me feel like I’ve put in an extra long stint on the Pequod), I really like yoga. But what to do then about those mirror-lined studios and the fears of ‘joining’ a gym?  Well, the great thing about the UK is that whilst we are full of top of the line gyms, we are also full of village halls and school auditoriums, all of them full of your local brand of a chosen sport. Apart from having the classic musty smell that ‘community exercise,’ automatically creates, there is a casual anonymity to village hall exercise. With no compulsory gym membership or sign up involved and the sight of the yoga mats tucked in the cupboard next to the props for the nursery nativity, I find that there is a real feeling of low pressure. Whilst it’s easy to be intimidated in a young, hip, gym full of stretchy people, that’s just not the case when you’re doing downward dog with a collection of locals in various shapes and sizes. Sometimes exercising with other ‘normals’ is all you really need to feel like you might just fit in.

And for the times when even the unassuming locals and their yoga mats seem too much for me, I found a collection of popular online videos that I pretty much stand by – Compared to other online videos that put the focus on if you can bend your neck behind your leg, Adriene’s motto of ‘Find what feels good’ is infinitely preferable. Also, she is the calmest woman in the world with a hypnotic voice that my husband says is ‘like honey and a warm bath.’ She also, insightfully, structures her yoga videos around the needs of life – so there is yoga for stress, and yoga for headaches, and sometimes that’s what you really need. Not a increasingly complex routine that will leave you sweaty and sad and feeling like a failure. There is also a sense of community in her videos, lots of people use them and stand by them. There is a forum for discussion, the feeling of a team without a team. Similarly, things like Runkeeper can provide something like the community a running club might provide without you ever having to panic about meeting people in person. Instead data is logged and compared online. There are fantastic ways out there by which you can find what you need without having to place yourself in a panic inducing situation.

But what about the times when what you need is nothing?  Those not getting out of bed days, those not leaving the house, not moving from the sofa days? How can you get your endorphins then?

Well, I find moving doesn’t have to be ‘exercise,’ to have an uplifting effect.  Sometimes moving can just be that – moving. When I’m anxious I like to brush my teeth. The repetitive motion is calming and gives me a moment of quiet. If someone said ‘Well, if you’re feeling anxious, you should do some push ups!’ that would be too much, but this little movement? I can manage that. When I am really struggling with depression and the maximum amount of movement I will likely achieve that day is from the bed to the kettle and back, I try and move in these small ways.

Like taking a shower. It wakes up my muscles, makes me feel a little alive, and like I have achieved something.

Like stretching. I might not feel up to dancing on those days, but a gentle stretch in bed just makes me aware that my body is there. It still works. Things might be okay.

Adriene even has a yoga routine that you can do in bed. I have used it more than once.

When I can just about make it out of the house and stick to schedule but the idea of changing into sweats and trying to copy a video is too much for me, the ten minutes it takes me to walk to a coffee shop to do my writing gives me the boost I need. That little bit of moment is invaluable. Or the five minutes it takes to walk outside and go round the corner to the local shop. It might not seem like anything to some people, to people who run marathons or sail small boats across oceans it might be riddiculous, but it is something. It is a little way of building movement into my day that I can manage.

Because when your brain space is stuck, moving can be really hard. When you have anxiety or weight problems or are just down-right shy, moving can be scary and feel like the last thing you want to do. But it helps to know it doesn’t have to be big, even the smallest movement can be the greatest achievement. You need to find what helps you, ‘find what feels good’ (Thanks, Adriene!) and maybe you’ll be one step closer to those large, exercise related goals you might have.

Maybe climbing Kilimanjaro.

Maybe running a marathon.

Maybe sailing a small boat around the world.

Maybe your goal is simply, like me, to feel a bit better. To feel a little more in control and a little happier. To have a few endorphins in your life. And maybe, one day, I will feel comfortable enough to pull a Callie from Grey’s Anatomy and dance about in my underwear.

Whatever it is, it’s a start.





2 thoughts on “Gotta move. Mental health and exercise

  1. This is absolutely brilliant. I’ve learned so much in your article, and I will be looking out the yoga especially, as it’s something I’ve never got on with, probably due to the problems with classes that you describe so well. I’m just about to start running again so will very much enjoy following your own progress. Thank you for the kind words about my piece as well.

    (I am totally with you on the wonders of Callie Torres)

    1. Kat, I am so glad you got something out of the blog, and I am so grateful for your piece! We need more discussion about mental health in our day to day lives, so thank you for being part of that.

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