Perhaps you are feeling lethargic, discouraged and/or depressed. Possibly you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed by life and its circumstances. Maybe you feel stuck and tired, and don’t really know what to do next. Stop what you’re doing right now, and go for a brisk walk (well after you’ve read this post of course).
Let me begin by stating I won’t be discussing the physical benefits of regular exercise, of which there are many. I also want to clarify that I don’t think exercise is the cure all for psychiatric concerns. A fairly large percentage of the population is aware of both psychological and physiological benefits of exercise, and yet about 25% (some research suggests 35%) of the U.S. population gets little to no physical activity at all or are sedentary. A sedentary lifestyle, in addition to the number of medical problems it can create, can also have deleterious effects on your psychological well-being, including increased depression and anxiety, reduced stress tolerance, and issues with memory. That said, there is an incredible and research-supported connection between your mental health and the amount of physical activity you do or don’t get. Studies consistently demonstrate just how beneficial exercise is to improving and maintaining our emotional health. It enhances mood, improves our ability to deal with stress, aids in sleep, increases energy and can help stave off some of the negative effects of aging on our brain functioning. Additionally, it can enhance self-esteem and self-efficacy, and generally make one feel more confident to deal with life. But I’m probably not telling you much of anything you don’t already know about the benefits of physical activity.
Although this discussion won’t be exhaustive, what I hope to do is assist you in finding ways to bring balance to your life and improve your emotional well-being by adding physical activity to your weekly routine. I’m aware that there might be some physical and financial limitations to getting physical activity. Some of these limitations might include, having a disability, living in a place where it is perhaps unsafe to be outside for long periods of time, and/or lack of access or not having the monetary resources to use exercise equipment. There are no easy solutions for all of these issues, but I will try to offer some practical suggestions for strategies you can implement in your own life.
I want to recognize that for some the idea of physical activity and exercise seems daunting. A good place to start if this seems to be your struggle, is asking yourself a few questions and then we’ll explore some of the frequent problems associated with the answers to these questions, and some of the strategies for helping to potentially mitigate some of those problems:
- What is my perception of what it means to exercise and be physically active?
- What are my goals for being active and what is driving me to be active?
- What are some of the obstacles I face as a person who wants to be more active?
Changing Perceptions of Physical Activity
When some answer the first question posed about exercise, one of the images that probably comes to mind is spending hours in a gym, either grunting on a weight machine, running on a treadmill bored out of your mind, or perhaps there is some incredibly fit instructor screaming at you to pedal harder. While those activities are actually pretty good options for exercise, they’re not the only ones and maybe they aren’t all that appealing to some (I don’t really like being yelled at that much). Physical activity can include a range of activities that increase your heart rate and require some sustained effort.
If going to the gym is not your thing, look for exercises you can do at home. If you don’t have weights, the human body can provide all the resistance you need. It’s amazing the number of body weight exercises one can find on YouTube or the Internet. If you don’t like to run on a treadmill for an hour at a time or maybe body weight exercises seem too intense, find a friend with whom to play tennis, go for vigorous walks with your pet (I don’t want to assume you have a dog, you might have a tiger or gerbil that does well on a leash), or have a dance party with your roommates. Research consistently shows that we’re more likely to exercise and maintain that exercise if we’re doing something we enjoy. So find your thing (not someone else’s) and you might find you actually look forward to it and WANT to stick with it.
A person might also have the perception that unless you’re exercising consistently for half an hour to an hour at a time, it doesn’t “count”. But when it comes to your mental health, this isn’t true. In fact, within the first 5 minutes of engaging in moderate physical activity, one will begin to experience some of the positive psychological benefits, like an improved sense of well-being. So if you do 10 minutes in the morning, 10 more in the afternoon at lunch, and 10 more in the evening before or after dinner, you’ll likely begin to notice a change in your mood.
Goals and Motivation
Some of the most common goals for physical activity are that one will lose massive amounts of weight; or, maybe one will be more physically attractive and socially desirable. These are not “bad” or “wrong” goals to have, however, they can and do create unrealistic expectations, and they tend to be extrinsically motivating factors as opposed to intrinsically motivating ones. In brief, extrinsically motivating factors are those factors outside of the self that push one towards certain behaviors (e.g. if you clean your room you’ll earn an allowance), whereas intrinsic motivation refers to an inward drive that leads one to having an increased internal sense of satisfaction (e.g. you clean your room because you feel better after you do some cleaning). Both forms of motivation can move you toward achieving your goals, however, research consistently shows the motivating effect of extrinsic factors can be short-lived and increase feelings of being discouraged when those expectations aren’t met. For example, if the primary expectation is that after exercising for a week, you’re going to lose 15 lbs., and you step on the scale and you’ve lost 3, that’s going to hurt the ego and make it less likely you’ll keep at it. Instead, if the expectation is that you are going to feel better, feel less stressed, and have more energy after being active for 30 minutes, that becomes your motivation. Therefore, if weight loss does occur, it becomes a side effect of doing something you enjoy, rather than the focus of your energy and attention.
Something else to consider are the types of goals you might set, and often this can be put into two categories, outcome vs. process goals. Outcome goals tend to be those goals where one is looking at a specific number, like losing 15 lbs. from the example above. Unfortunately for something like weight loss, there could be other factors influencing whether or not weight changes occur, like diet, genetics, or perhaps one is gaining muscle mass. A better way to go is to set process goals. Process goals bring the focus to daily activities that are more within your control. A process-oriented goal might be to get some form of physical activity three times a week. In that way you’re more focused on the doing, rather than what the end result will be.
Common Obstacles to Physical Activity and What Can Be Done to Address Them
I believe that there certain challenges and obstacles to being physically active and some may be more or less within our control. To overcome some of these barriers, I think it is important to be flexible, creative and committed.
Time is often described as a barrier by my clients. People either work many or strange hours, and/or have considerable amounts of homework to do. People might have family or animals for whom they must care, or it would take 20 minutes or more to get to a gym. While time can be a problem, it is not an impossible one to manage. Sometimes it is as simple as taking a look at your day-to-day routine and finding ways of fitting in 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there. Also, be honest with yourself about how you are organizing your day and spending your time. If a person spends 30 minutes a day watching Netflix, make a determination about whether or not this is a necessity, or if you can combine physical activity with watching your show. Maybe you do an in home workout that requires little to no equipment in that 30 minutes you’re watching Parks and Rec.
As stated above, some people may not feel motivated to exercise, because it seems too daunting or overwhelming. One of the pitfalls of starting a physical activity program is attempting to do too much right out of the gate. A person may decide that “today is the day I put on my old basketball shorts and go to open gym for a couple of hours, even though I haven’t played in a few years (who did that… This guy).” The next morning when your entire body dislikes you and wants to spend the next several days sleeping in, this might be discouraging and destroy any motivation you have for trying to remain active. Instead, start small and then build upon the tiny successes you have along the way and focus on one day at a time. If you were able to get out and walk a total of 45 minutes today, great. If not, that’s okay too, because tomorrow is a new day. Also, make it easier on yourself to be motivated with “cues to action.” In simplistic terms, a cue to action is stimulus of some sort that helps increase an overt behavior. For example, this might be sleeping in your gym clothes if you want to exercise in the morning when you wake up, or leaving a pair of comfortable shoes at work so you can take a walk during a break or at lunch. Maybe you send out a group text (if you have this capability) telling people you’ll be at the park later to play some outdoor games.
Not having access to resources is another challenge. Not everyone has the finances to join a gym or take fitness classes. Or, maybe because of where you live, a gym is not close by. Again, change your perception of what physical activity is and means to you. If you live in an apartment with multiple stairs, walk the stairs for a while. Do an in-home workout. You can usually find workout programs that require little or no equipment online, and if you don’t have access to the Internet at home, use the Internet at the local library and print something off or write something down.
Other obstacles include people having a fear of being judged, or maybe a fear of failure. To help overcome these barriers, focus on you, and you alone. Make increasing or actually getting physical activity about your own psychological well-being and not about numbers or appearance. If you’re anxious about going to the gym or feel discouraged when you see a bunch of seemingly fit people taking photos for the Gram, find a gym where you feel more comfortable or go with a friend. Get people who are important to you involved in your physical activity, so maybe you can turn to them for support when you feel discouraged.
As I said before, this is not a be-all-end-all for the psychological benefits of physical activity and how to get yourself moving in a positive direction. There are a number of factors I did not cover, like the ways psychotherapy combined with exercise can have a substantial positive impact on concerns like depression and anxiety, but I would be happy to discuss if you had questions. What I hope you can do is use this post as a springboard to taking a little more control over your mental health and well-being. A therapist can be an incredible resource for initiating this process, because many of us are equipped with the tools to help increase your motivation, and to assist you in making longer-lasting positive changes.