Exercise and Mental Health
Several years ago I met an acquaintance as I was headed out of the grocery store and she was headed in. She was obviously on her way home from exercising at the gym. We chatted for a minute about her regular trips to they gym and about physical fitness in general. “a gym membership is cheaper than depression meds.” she quipped. I laughed and we parted to go our separate ways.
I’ve thought about that conversation quite a bit lately, particularly on the days when I’m pounding my feet on a treadmill. Over the past several months it has become clear that I have two choices to regulate my emotional state. I can either exercise three to five days per week, or I can find a doctor and get anti anxiety/depression medication. When I try to avoid those choices my emotional state vacillates wildly. My capabilities change. I hate it. I don’t think it is fair. I know that declaring life as unfair makes me sound five years old and I’m mad about that too. I remember the days when I was an extremely stable person emotionally, but things are different now. So I get mad about it and I use that anger to get me to the gym where I’m allowed to be angry at every running footstep I need to take.
I choose exercise, it has better side effects. When I’m not being angry that life is not fair, I am able to be very grateful that exercise does work. Not everyone is so fortunate. I know people who struggle with brain imbalances much worse than mine. I also know that my choices may change in the future. Physiology and psychology are in constant flux. There may come a day when instead of either/or I’m faced with and. In the meantime, I’m once again being mindful and getting my exercise, because taking two weeks off landed me in a place where I wondered if I was going crazy.
I finally understand the quip my acquaintance made. She was not joking at all. She masked it as a joke, passing it off lightly because we didn’t know each other well and parking lots are not good for deep conversation. Now I understand her, because on the way home from the gym I stop at the store and run into acquaintances.
It feels wrong to be praised for this thing I feel forced to do and which I often do resentfully. I also know how recently I’ve become regular about exercise and how easy it is for me to fall back out of the pattern. Exercise is a new habit and it wears on me in unfamiliar ways. Howard thinks that the resentment will wear away and exercise can be something I just enjoy. Maybe he is right. I know that used to be true. Perhaps it will be true again. A few times I’ve felt the edges of enjoyment, I definitely feel satisfaction some days. Mostly I just get moving because whether or not I enjoy it does not matter as much as the fact that I need it. Perhaps these other emotions will emerge when exercise is a familiar part of my routines, like a comfortable pair of shoes. Right now I need to be grouchy about exercise, because the anger gets me out the door, and when I come home I am more able to do everything else.
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