We’re always hearing about the positive effects exercise has on our bodies. We’re going to lose weight, look great, live longer, be healthy, all that jazz that has been pounded into our heads that we’ve known for years and years. That’s not what I’m going to talk about. I mean, sure, all of that stuff is important, in fact, it’s great!! But there’s something else that exercise has an effect on… our minds.
A little about me: my name is Kim and I’m a Social Worker. I’m in Graduate school getting my MSW and have a plan to change the world one person at a time (a completely different story all together). Right now I work mostly in Trauma (Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, Suicide, Natural Disasters, and a brief stint in Military Trauma).
There’s also something else you should know. Like many other Americans and people around the world, I have a mental illness: I’m Bipolar II, which in laymen’s terms means that I get severe depressive episodes (literally don’t want to, and can’t get out of bed, let alone do anything else) and have hypo-manic episodes (I get extra giddy, talk too much, spend too much money, and have bouts of insomnia). Due to some severe past relationship issues I also have anxiety. This blog is NOT about how I kicked medication using exercise. For myself, I have to be on medication, and will be on medication for the rest of my life. It’s ok, I’m over it.
So, let’s talk about medications. All medications have side effects… yes, ALL of them. What they don’t tell you, and this is from experience both personally and professionally, is that how a drug effects me will more than likely be different from how it effects you. Drugs interact with all of our systems differently.
One of the biggest reasons I hear from my own clients about why they don’t want to continue their medication is “Because it makes me fat.” Weight gain is a huge side effect of many mental health medications. For all of us out there that have to take medications, this is infuriating, I know: my mood stabilizer, Depakote, is one of the major weight gain medications, but it’s also one of the best, most common mood stabilizers out there. For people like me, this drug works, but the weight gain side effect sucks. Before I went on my own personal fitness/weight loss journey, I was wearing between a size 14 and 16, depending on the cut. For many reasons I used food as a way to self soothe and self medicate. I used my medication as the reason I couldn’t lose weight. Let’s be honest here, I was lying to myself, as many people do.
After years of lying to myself, I came to the conclusion that I really needed to actually TRY to lose weight, to make lifestyle changes. I stopped drinking soda, stopped hitting the fast food joints when I was stuck in my car doing home visits, and would pack a lunch that wouldn’t spoil after being in my car all morning instead. I learned how to cook healthy meals for one and prepare food that I could put in the freezer and then heat up after long days at work when I didn’t feel like cooking when I got home. I STOPPED letting the excuse of my medication be my crutch to not lose weight and get healthy. I also decided to start getting back into working out. Here’s where this story starts to get good.
I could tell you about all kinds of studies that are out there about the positive benefits of exercise on mental health disorders, but I won’t. I mean, this is a blog, not a research paper I’m doing for grad school; I just don’t want to put you through that, it’s boring, with no life or personal story to it. Instead, I’m going to tell you about the effects it’s had on me, and maybe a few tidbits I’ve gotten from clients here and there along the way.
When I started going back to the gym, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do… there’s so many options out there for exercise now! Luckily, I had joined one of those gyms that offered all kinds of classes with almost every kind of workout you could think of. I also got a trainer, because I decided I was going all in. I wanted to do this, and I wanted to do it right. After trying many of the classes, my loves were kick boxing (working in trauma, I REALLY needed a way to get out some aggression, and I thought it was good to have as a fall back, in case anyone decided they saw me as a victim), yoga (super relaxing), and running. Now, it wasn’t immediately that I started to notice the difference; at that point in time I was more concerned that my body hurt everywhere and I was rediscovering and discovering muscles that I hadn’t used in forever or never even knew existed.
It wasn’t until my next medication check that I even started paying attention to it, and this is why:
Dr.: You look great.
K: Thanks, I’ve been feeling really good lately.
Dr.: Well, how are you doing with your medications? Any changes?
K: Come to think of it, I feel better than I have in a long time. Medications are still working.
Dr.: What’s changed? Why do you think things are better?
K: The only thing that has changed is that I started going to a gym and have been working out regularly. Everything else is same ole’ same ole’.
Dr.: Really? Are you still keeping your mood journal?
Dr.: You might want to go back and look at changes since you’ve started exercising. There are studies that say exercise has positive effects on mental health.
I’ll never forget that day, and I’ll never forget going back into my journal and being amazed at what I found. Exercise was REALLY making a difference!! My moods had steadily improved since I started working out and I was less all over the place. I’m on what my Dr.’s call a “sub-therapeutic” dose for my medications for my Bipolar and anxiety, which basically means what I’m on shouldn’t work in the first place. I have several theories for this:
1. I try to be as self-aware as possible. I’m always evaluating and re-evaluating myself, trying to be better, do better, and make changes where I need to.
2. I’m in the field. I know my medication is important, and I’ve never gone off them or been hospitalized. There are some professionals out there (I know, I’ve had these types of people) who will look at you as your diagnosis and tell you that you are sick, that this is what you should expect out of your life as you listen to a ridiculous diatribe about hospitalizations, going on and off medications, and the bad decisions you will undoubtedly make in your life because you’re just like every other person with X mental illness.
Those people are full of shit. They would probably also choke on their words if I ever went and found them in their stuffy offices and shoved my Master’s degree in their faces. Alas, that’s neither here nor there, just don’t listen to those people. Back to my theories.
3. I actually feel MORE “normal” when I can feel my emotions. On higher doses I feel like a zombie without feelings and numb.
Finally, 4. I exercise.
Exercise has kept me regulated. I can tell when I miss a day at the gym or a day of running or biking outside, even just walking. If I miss a week, I not only feel it in my body, but my mind is either too slow, or too fast. When it comes down to it, it’s just that much harder for me to function without it. I’m better able to control myself and my focus. I also sleep better which is HUGE for me. Any night that I can get 5 hours of sleep or more is a good night. When I’m exercising, I get that.
Back to that lie that I had told myself about my medication making me not able to lose weight: I can tell you now, it was a complete and TOTAL LIE. I have lost weight… an amazing amount of weight, over 85 lbs., to be exact. I went from a size 14-16, to a size 6. As of right now, I have an amazing size 4 dress that’s waiting to be worn to my cousin’s wedding in March, and I WILL fit into it.
Exercise is just as important to your mental health as it is to your physical health. It’s a stress reliever, a relaxant (although it may not feel like it at that moment), a rejuvenator. I’ve come to the point where the studies about mental health and exercise don’t matter to me anymore, because I know it works. I’m walking, talking proof. I challenge you to try it. On the days when you’re feeling down, or sad, or just don’t want to do anything. Get up, go outside, take a walk, or ride your bike, go to the local gym and sign up for their free trial (yes they’re out there, I used to “Gym hop” which is a fun way of saying I would go to whatever gym was offering a free trial and then move on to the next one so I would never have to pay for a gym membership. Sad I know, but have you seen a Social Worker’s salary?!?) and just see how you feel when you’re done. More than likely, you’re going to feel a ton better. Your body and your mind will thank you.
For more info on Kim, visit her guest blogger bio page!