Exercise; If You Can Only Do One Thing For Your Mental Health… Make it This

See if you can figure out what I’m doing. “Grapevine out, grapevine back, L step left, L step right, mambo, cha cha, pivot around, now kicks around the world.” Did you recognize this as the instructions for my step aerobics class? Now that you know it’s an aerobics class you might think that I am getting exercise. But you would be wrong. I am releasing anger, decreasing depression, diverting anxiety and minimizing stress.

I’m an animal, just like you, Homo Sapiens I’m told. So when I get stressed or angry this big chemical reaction takes place in my body. My Adrenal Gland releases adrenalin, my breathing increases, blood is shifted away from my digestive system and directed into my muscles and limbs so I can either fight or flee the Saber Toothed Tiger. In addition, the blood leaves the thinking part of my brain because the fight or flight mechanism bypasses my rational mind-where my more well thought out beliefs exist-and moves me into “animal” mode.

If I hold the anger too long it can shift to depression. If I hold the stress, it can shift to anxiety and panic attacks. And it’s the normal events of life that can bring on these chemical reactions in the first place; anything from running late and getting stuck behind a construction truck, to finding out that the daughter of a friend has died in a tragic car accident.

So here I am, a civilized woman, having to live in my “animal” body and control myself behind the truck, on the phone with the incompetent service representative (pick a company), or beside my weeping friend. Thank goodness for the kickboxing classes!! It’s clear that I am not going to jump through the phone lines and punch the woman who says I don’t have an account with her insurance company, but I can punch her in my mind when I hit that bag. And I don’t even need to be in kickboxing to get relief, if I’m having a bad time, my regular step or Hi-Lo classes at the gym can give me release. Now moves like “turn step” or “side lifts” won’t do it, but a nice set of “kicks” or “knee lifts” can surely do the trick. It’s the arms and the breath that make the difference. Picture a knee lift to the middle of an invisible body with a nice grunt (gaaraagh) while parallel arms with bending elbows are coming down from over my head and slamming the top of an invisible head. Sometimes I’m really upset, and the sounds are loud. Sometimes I make no noise at all. Sometimes my classmates will even join me. The best thing is, no one knows what’s bugging me, and I still get to feel better.

Getting rid of the stress hormones doesn’t have to be really hard. Any activity that works up a sweat for five or ten minutes will help our “animal” bodies feel like they have effectively dealt with the Saber Toothed Tiger. So you can run up and down the stairs, or close the door and run in place, or do push ups. You get the idea. As an added bonus, exercise increases our natural endorphins (endogenous morphine), and those give us a nice sense of peace and well-being.

In conclusion, if you really want to complete the cycle, let me suggest a little yoga, or some other form of moving meditation that allows “humanity” to return after the “animal” has been expelled. Those exercise instructions might sound like this; “Move to a comfortable seated position. On your next inhaling breath, draw the loving light of the universe in through the top of your head. On the exhale let it exit through your heart. Let the light surround you, the people in this room, and finally all humanity. Do this for several breaths.”

If you can only do one thing to increase your mental health, I hope you start with exercise. Because, like Thomas Jefferson said,

“Happiness is not being pained in body or troubled in mind.”