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We all know exercise is amazing for mental health.
Indeed, movement is one of the very best tools we can have in our Mental Health Tool Box.
But what happens when you’re flat out exhausted from battling mental illness to even think of working out? If you’re already low on spoons (check out Spoon Theory here), just thinking about exercising could wipe out your remaining energy for the day.
Even though you know it’ll make you feel better in the end, sometimes it’s just not worth the investment energy it takes to put clothes on and go to the gym.
Why is Exercise Important for Mental Health?
One of the main reasons exercise is so vital to your mental health is because it alters the chemicals in your brain. In a good way.
Working out boosts your Serotonin, Epinephrine, and Dopamine production. It also triggers the release of Endorphins which help to naturally mute pain.
These feel good chemicals not only help balance your mood but they also have a positive effect on your digestion, nervous system and circadian rhythm. This in turn helps you feel more satisfied by meals, deal with pain better, and improves sleep – all critical factors to good mental health.
So as much as it sucks to push yourself to work out, it really has to happen in order for optimum mental health.
How can we Make Exercise More Manageable?
As you can tell from the memes above, I’m not a fan of exercise. Even though I’m a marathon runner, I’ve always had to push myself to work out. It’s just not my thing.
That means when depression comes calling, I don’t have the spare energy to make myself get up and exercise like I normally can. That’s when I have to shift expectations and make exercise something more manageable for me as a depressed person.
You see, exercise doesn’t actually have to be all or nothing. We can scale it. By that I mean we can make it easier to accomplish by breaking it down into steps or taking down the intensity. Just like you’d adjust your work out when you’re physically sick.
This kind of scaling helps you stay on track without getting burned out.
What Kind of Exercise is Ideal for Combating Low Mental Health?
When you’re low, you need the max amount of energy return for the minimum amount of energy input.
These are going to be things that:
- Don’t require too many steps to get started
- Don’t require a ton of investment energy (it’s something you can just do without thinking too hard)
- Tend to be more gentle in nature
- Can be stopped easily if you feel overwhelmed
- You can do at home or close to home
- Are non-competitive
- Are fun and/or relaxing to the nervous system
- Get your Dopamine, Epinephrine and Serotonin levels up (generally a bit of cardio)
So we know the specifics but now we need to know what exercises fit those criteria. Check just a few of them out below!
Yin yoga is a variety of yoga that tends to be slow and gentle. You stay in the positions for much longer than you would in Ashtanga or Vinyasa Flows. This gives you an *amazing* stretch, which is crucial if you’re suffering from the muscle tension of anxiety and/or stress.
It’s also great for those of us who struggle with Distress Intolerance (the inability to deal with emotional and physical stress). It may seem easy at first just sit in Child’s Pose or a Seated Forward Fold but after the stretch deepens, your muscles get very uncomfortable. This encourages you to connect with the breath to push through that discomfort and distress. Which is great for anxiety, focus, and centeredness.
I’ve tried a lot of different types of Yoga and by far Yin is my favorite. That’s because it just feels so damn good and I don’t have to do anything but sit in the position and breathe. Win win.
My favorite internet Yogi is Kassandra because she does a lot of gentle Yin combined with affirmations. Check her out!
As a runner, this one is actually kind of tough for me. There are lots of times where I think I should do a hardcore cardio exercise but my body and mind are like:
Those times I have to just give in and take a walk instead.
But you know what? Walking is awesome, especially for your mental health. Think about it – you get to take time to check out the flowers, you get some Vitamin D from the Sun, and you still get the benefit of movement without all the trouble of running.
When I’m feeling down, I like to take long walks in the morning with a cup of tea. Having that quiet time to relax and ponder things is really settling for me. I always feel a little brighter afterwards.
Dancing is great medicine for the soul. You don’t have to be good at it to get the benefits either, you just have to move your body. Add your favorite music and boom, instant mood boost!
And if dancing on your own isn’t really appealing to you, try a video game like Just Dance or Dance Dance Revolution. These games are so much fun you won’t even realize you’re getting the workout of your life! There are also a lot of fun YouTube channels out there getting people to move.
The Fitness Marshall is always a fave:
I’m a Water Baby – so swimming at the beach is one of my go to’s when I’m feeling really down.
Now a swim doesn’t have to be Olympic level intense to be good for you. Just floating in the water gives you calm feeling like no other. And being suspended in the pool helps you stretch out your joints, reducing the pain and inflammation which build up due to anxiety and depression.
If you do want to get a little more intense with it and get some cardio – pool running is a great option that’s low pressure on your body. It looks a little goofy but it’s actually a great workout.
And if you like the unique calm of being underwater – snorkeling and scuba diving are excellent options. Many people have said that the peace that comes from scuba has helped them work through PTSD, depression and anxiety.
Jumping as Exercise
In my opinion there is nothing more fun than jumping on a trampoline. It’s an easy way to get your body moving but it’s also an awesome way to connect with your inner child. Which can be really beneficial to your mental state.
We love going to the indoor trampoline park by our house. There we have the option to just jump or engage in the fun activities like the obstacle course and trampoline basketball.
No matter what we chose to do, my husband and I are filled with joy (from the Endorphins no doubt!) and thoroughly worked out by the end of the night.
Kundalini Yoga is a deeply spiritual form of yoga. Not only does it give your body a gentle workout but it also helps you unblock and realign your energy (Chi). This can be really helpful if you’re struggling with depression, PTSD, tension from anxiety, or pent up energy from a mood disorder.
Kundalini also helps reduce pain in your body and encourages healthy digestion, which has a big effect on your Serotonin production (Most Serotonin is produced in the gut).
Check out some of the great practices for beginners from YouTube:
Hiking is a beautiful way to get in touch with the healing power of nature (check out the incredible story of Cheryl Strayed). You don’t have to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail like Cheryl did to find herself after years of addiction.
You can start by just taking a walk in the woods.
The quietude of hiking is a huge benefit to your mental health. Connecting with nature along the way builds gratitude and focus. And there’s not much that can beat the accomplishment of looking out over a ridge to see how far you’ve come.
Check out these amazing stories of people who have have used hiking as a tool to fight their mental illness. **TW Suicide**
And there we go folks, 7 ways to get the benefit of exercise even when you’re low.
The great thing about scaling exercise to your mental health level is that you can go up or down. It’s totally okay if you can only walk a mile right now because of depression fatigue. You’ve already won because you got up to move. When you’re feeling better, then you can tackle more miles.
And that’s what I really hope you all take away from this post – low days/times don’t last forever. Just because you have to take it easy today doesn’t mean it’ll always be that way. You’re amazing for just surviving the day and you’ll be back running marathons when you’re ready.
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