Ok. So. I really hope you all recognize the voice of Elle Woods. While I may be (I hope) a complete 180 of her, I still love (love love) Legally Blonde. “Exercise gives you endorphins; endorphins make you happy, happy people just don’t shoot their husbands!”
For Hollywood’s purposes, this was the the perfect alibi in a murder case. In real life however, it actually makes sense.
How do you relieve stress and anxiety? On a bad day, what do you use to unwind? What we choose helps to either alleviate, or exacerbate the emotions we’re experiencing. Not just for the short term.
Treating ourselves with something that artificially and momentarily alters our complicated moods is ingrained in our culture. And, has become reduced to a simple catchphrase and meme. Anything and everything negative leads to “I’m gonna need a drink.” Of course, catchphrases and memes are funny. But, the truth is alcohol or drugs, candy and junk food, smoking and zoning out to the TV are now the national response to life and its challenges. The dependence and overutilization of these temporary distractions can harm us in the long term. It can lead to worsened moods, damaged health and relationships, and distract us from what is important.
Catchphrases and memes are funny. But sometimes the reality of how our lives are affected, is not so funny.
Now, don’t get it twisted. This isn’t me on a tirade against alcohol and junk food. And by all means, consume responsibly when you are in the right state of mind to do so. I am, however, countering the idea that these are the answers to our emotions. I’m feeling something that I’m not comfortable with, so I’m going to numb everything.
But what if we switch our mindset? Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands, right? So how do we increase our endorphins, and also reduce our stresses and anxieties? Exercise.
Have you ever heard of a runner’s high? I won’t get too sciencey. And the exact science is still being researched. But, it appears to have much to do with complex interactions involving opiod peptides, endorphins and our endocannabinoid system. This interaction creates a euphoric feeling. A natural, euphoric feeling, coming from many forms of exercise. Exercise is therefore correlated with an overall decrease in symptoms associated with both depression and anxiety.
So what if, instead of “man, I need a drink after this”. We say, “man, I need to go for a (insert your favorite exercise here)”. This could change our health. Not just physically, but mentally. Instead of fighting our stress and anxiety with depressants, or excess sugars, let’s treat ourselves with activity and endorphins.
We typically like the short term effects of our temporary distractions, such as alcohol. But, we also know that using a depressant (alcohol) while depressed, is not actually going to help. Again, not to get too sciencey, but as the blood alcohol level decreases, neurotransmitters are released that are associated with stress. In short – it can worsen the pre-alcohol state of emotion. And. Not to burst anyone’s bubble. But, sugar has also been linked to depression. Sorry. (More on this later).
So far, I’m really just glancing the surface of this idea. We all have bad days, bad months even. We have high stress situations that wreck havoc on our systems. Or, completely crushing experiences that leave us feeling like we’ve hit lower than rock bottom. But let’s expand our view to mental illness. Not just stressful, anxiety riddled, bad days.
If exercise can help us improve our mood on a crummy day, what can it do for our brains on a deeper level?
First, let’s take some of the stigma away from “Mental Illness.” In the U.S., 1 in 5 adults has a mental illness in any given year. This can range from causing no impairment, to profound impariment interfering with a person’s major life activities. We still treat this as if our brains are not treatable as our physical bodies.
People are not ashamed to stat that they are sick with the cold or flu, or have an injury. But, we’re often ashamed to stat that we are experiencing sleep disturbances, appetite changes, lack of energy or interest in normal activities, or that we’re sad and irritable. We are ashamed to say that we are experiencing symptoms of depression. For some reason, it is still an embarrassing subject, like it makes us weak or that we’re not trying hard enough. Yet, mental illness impacts all of us in one way or another.
As Storm tells us in episode 1 of the Uncanny X-Men Series, “people fear with that do not understand.” And, if we look at the rest of Andrew Smith’s quote, “And hate what they cannot conquer,” we understand this even better.
We often can’t see mental illnesses. And if we have not experienced it than it is extremely hard to understand. (You know, the difference between empathy and sympathy). And if we don’t understand it, how can we solve it? How can we conquer it? So, as a people, we’re scared and shut down to problem solving that is within our control.
But let’s just look at the brain function of it. And let’s start with this amazing statistic. “Active people are 45% less likely to have depressive symptoms that inactive people.” And the correlations found are observed across all ages, racial groups and household income levels. This is something that can benefit everyone.
What has been found? Doing ANY type of exercise, between 30 and 60 minutes in length, 3-5 times a week is correlated to fewer mental health burdens.
So. What’s my point in all of this? Exercise isn’t just about looking good in the summer bikini. And, it can have nothing to do with that at all. But the focus shouldn’t solely be on our physical health either when we’re talking about benefits. Physical activity can help alleviate stress and anxiety as well as aches and pains. It can also help with the weight of Mental Illnesses.
My other point. Let’s stop making Mental Illness a taboo topic.
I also want to point out, if you, or someone you know, is in need – reach out for help. While I promote health and wellness through exercise, nutrition and overall healthy choices – sometimes we need more. Reach out to your friends and family. And, if needed, your Doctor or a qualified Mental Health Specialist. I don’t know if you saw when I mentioned it before, but 1 in 5 of us in the U.S. has a Mental Illness. If you have a broken bone or an ear infection, you go to your specialist. If you need someone to talk to, go see your specialist.
Your health is your whole body, including your beautiful brain.
And, if you aren’t in need of help, consider being someone others can reach out to. Serendipitously, earlier today a friend of mine posted about the highlight of her week. She volunteers with a local program called Running for Hope Alaska. And while I’ve never heard of them before today, my friend’s message resonated with me. They partner with local women currently struggling with homelessness for weekly runs. They are striving to “help provide the physical benefits of running as well as emotional and mental benefits that come from being part of a group.” It’s estimated that up to 25% of the homeless population in the U.S. suffers from some form of severe mental illness.
You don’t have to join a volunteer running club – but be there for the people you know, especially when they don’t know how to tell you they need help.
Yours in Health and Wellness,