I didn’t realize the powerful role exercise played in my mental self-care until I couldn’t exercise for five weeks. These hacks will help you start on your journey to using exercise to regulate your mental health.
Exercise and self-care go hand-in-hand. What would happen if you saw exercise as a powerful self-care tool instead of a drudgery you must check off your already too-long to-do list? We’ll explore the mental, academic, physical, and spiritual aspects of exercise during the month of June.
Another Year Without Hiking the Grand Canyon
“No Grand Canyon for me, this year,” I moaned to my fellow teacher. We had tentatively planned to take students on a hike from rim to river to rim for April 14.
“You don’t think your ankle will be healed by then?” he asked.
“Not a chance. I ruptured the ligament and have surgery schedule for March 24.”
“That’s too bad,” he said. “Maybe you’ll be ready to hike it from rim to rim in September when we go for outdoor school.”
“I hope so.” The bell rang and we went to our classroom doors to await the students. My walking boot clunked on the floor.
I felt sad about missing the Grand Canyon hike. Something about hiking for eight hours with a bunch of teenagers lifts my spirits. Even if my legs feel horrible the following day. The fresh air, wildflowers, waterfalls, and the satisfaction of accomplishing a difficult challenge invigorates me.
The anticipation of the hike also keeps me exercising during the winter when the days end too early and the air turns frigid. But I never realized the role of exercise on my mental self-care until I could no longer exercise.
First, I had Covid-19 in early January. Although I had the mildest of cases, it took a full two weeks before I could resume my normal activity. And just when I had built up my strength again at the end of February, I had a bicycle accident that resulted in a ruptured ligament.
I made sure to employ other mental self-care strategies, such as journaling, expressing gratitude, and listening to uplifting music. But without regular aerobic exercise, those strategies didn’t work as well. And then I had surgery.
Five Weeks Without Exercise Can Get a Gal Down
Unlike most people, I tend to be the exception rather than the rule. So when my surgeon cheerily assured me my ligament repair surgery would be a piece of cake, I should have known better.
I hadn’t braced myself mentally for sitting in my recliner for 12 days. By the second day, I craved movement. I figured out how to exercise a little without disobeying the doctor’s orders to remain non-weight bearing until my post-op visit.
Riding my stationary bike with my cast resting on the handlebars worked. Sort of. But the awkward position limited my ‘rides’ to ten minutes. Hopping around the house got my heart rate up a little, but having my foot hanging down for more than two or three minutes hurt too badly.
I tried wiggling and ‘dancing’ in my recliner, accompanied by loud, danceable music. But honestly, my ankle hurt if I didn’t keep it still and iced.
As the days dragged by, I found it more and more difficult to take care of myself emotionally. Random things made me cry. Sweet messages from blogging friends brought tears to my eyes. I struggled to keep things in perspective and found myself ruminating on all I couldn’t do. By the time I went to my post-op appointment, I felt like I needed to run a marathon to clear my head.
The surgeon looked over his handiwork, took out the sutures, put on Steri-strips, and told me to wear the boot for another four weeks. No more crutches required. I took about two weeks to wean myself from using them and accustom my ankle to the weight.
You Don’t Know How Much It Helps Until You Can’t Do It
Until I couldn’t do it, I didn’t know how valuable a role exercise played in my mental self-care routine. Just as I felt able to walk using only the boot, I developed an infection in my ankle and spent three days in bed with a fever and chills.
Finally, two months after surgery and three months after my injury, I took my first walk. It felt heavenly to go outside with Pedro and walk our usual route. Each day I can walk further, and I’ve started jogging short spurts to help get my heart rate up. And each time I exercise, I feel a loosening of my tension.
If you don’t exercise regularly, consider the mental self-care benefits of incorporating exercise into your daily routine. According to Ashish Sharma, M.D., et.al, “Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.”
Exercise to Increase Your Mental Self-Care
If you have a love/hate relationship with movement or even just a hate/hate relationship with movement, consider these hacks for helping to incorporate more exercise into your mental self-care bag of tricks.
1. Consider Your Why
Before you start something new, consider your why. Why do you want to exercise more? Do you want to increase those feel-good hormones in your body so you can combat a tendency towards depression or anxiety? Maybe you have a vague sense you should take better care of yourself but don’t know where to start.
You can visit this link for a FREE guide to discovering your why.
2. Find an Activity You Enjoy
The key to exercising on a regular basis lies in finding an activity you enjoy. After all, who has motivation to do something they loathe? Just because you hate (or dislike) an activity the first time you try it doesn’t mean you should give up on it. Unless it’s snowboarding. Go ahead and give up on snowboarding if you hate it the first time you try it. Just kidding. I tried it three times and never caught on, even with lessons.
Exercise doesn’t mean just walking or jogging. It’s any activity that raises your heart rate to aerobic levels and you can sustain for at least 10 minutes. You can make vacuuming an aerobic activity if you want to. Dancing to your favorite tunes in the privacy of your living room counts, as does bike riding, cross-country skiing, or even birding.
3. Find Ways to Do Necessary Exercises Even if You Dislike Them
I hate weight-lifting but know I need to work on building muscle as I age so I don’t get osteoporosis. I’ve discovered if I roll out of bed and immediately start my physical therapy exercises, I don’t mind them as much. Instead of hitting snooze, I wake up doing gentle stretches. I even do several sets of pushups and hold a plank for a minute in between PT exercises. For me, doing a routine before I put on my glasses or turn on any lights makes it easier.
Think of how you can to weight-bearing exercise or build muscle mass in ways that feel good for you. You don’t have to go to a weight room with a bunch of sweaty jocks to gain muscle mass. You can download Nike Training Club or other apps for ideas for strength exercises. Or, you can borrow my trick and do your strength exercise before you fully wake up.
4. Measure Your Progress
I don’t know about you, but I find it valuable to measure my progress. For the past two years, I’ve been on a journey to improve my health, build muscle mass, sleep more, and improve my relationship with food. This morning I looked at my stats from May 2019 and compared them with my stats for today.
The daily or weekly journey often feels infinitesimal, but the big picture made me realize just how far I’ve come. If you don’t know your starting point, you don’t know if you are succeeding. If it takes you 40 minutes to walk a loop around your neighborhood today, write it down and date it. Time yourself once a month and see how many minutes you can shave off your original time.
5. Tools and Gadgets Might Motivate You
I geek out on things like exercise watches, BMI scales, and whatever else it takes to help me measure progress and set goals. I’ve used pedometers, a FitBit watch, my cell phone, and an Apple Watch to record steps, calories burned, and set goals.
When I commit to doing a six or eight-week exercise course on Beach Body on Demand (Shaun T is my favorite trainer), I print out the record-keeping charts. Keeping track helps motivate me because the outward physical changes happen more slowly. I can take satisfaction in knowing I’ve gone from one pushup to ten pushups, even if my biceps still measure the same.
Figure out what works for you. You can use the after-action review method to help gauge your progress.
6. Become a Student of Yourself
Keep a simple diary and track your mood as well as your exercise. Do you feel more positive on days you start with some sort of aerobic exercise? Does your sleep improve on the days you do strength training? Do you think a race or competition would help keep you motivated to run or swim?
Maybe going to the local gym and doing Zumba under dim lights energizes you. Do it! Perhaps you prefer hiking with friends or walking your pet pig. Ask yourself if you prefer to exercise in silence or need music to encourage you. Do you prefer watching Netflix or listening to podcasts?
The better you know yourself, the easier it will become to find exercises that improve your mental self-care. Avoid forcing yourself to follow someone else’s exercise routine. Find out what makes YOU feel energized and do it!
Exercise for Mental Self-Care
Remember, getting at least 90 minutes of vigorous exercise each week will improve your mental health. You get to decide what those 90 minutes look like. Pace yourself, though. If you’ve never exercised regularly before, start with five minutes a day and work your way up.
One of the most treasured gifts you can give yourself is time to take care of yourself. Regular exercise provides a two-for-the-price-of-one benefit, too. You can improve your mental self-care and your physical self-care at the same time.One of the most treasured gifts you can give yourself is the gift of self-care. #mentalhealth #selfcare Click To Tweet