There’s a well known Latin quotation, which has been said to me countless times, by my father, as it was recited to him, in his youth, by my grandfather. “Mens sana in corpore sano,” translated, roughly, means, “A sound mind in a healthy body.”
We exercise and eat well for many different reasons. Whether the goal is athletic performance, better health, or good looks, regular physical activity also demonstrates a capacity to permeate the depths of the physical body, and improve one’s cognitive and emotional state.
Drawing upon my personal experiences with melancholia and emotional disquiet, and by observing the not-so-subtle improvements which occur in my clients, I’ve become convinced that we possess a wellspring of healing power, within each of us. Just as exercise can be used to prevent and treat many physical ailments, so can it bring about profound changes in mood and well-being.
How does it work? A physically challenging activity can immediately trigger potent neurochemical changes. Stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol are diminished. At the same time, a soothing release of endorphins, which are the body’s built in pain-killing, mood-boosters, floods the brain. Studies have also shown that exercise can stimulate the growth of new brain cells. Some of these young neurons are specifically designed to release the neurotransmitter GABA, which hushes squirrely brain activity. In effect, these are calming neurons which prevent anxious states of mind.
How long until I feel better? Similar to pharmaceutical antidepressant therapy, exercise therapy can take several weeks to kick in. This is one, of many, reasons why the occasional clanging of weights or monthly spin class is of little value. Consistency and committed dedication are of the essence. In other words, you are what you do each day. Be that as it may, I regularly enjoy an immediate improvement in my disposition, during, or as the result of, a well-executed workout. As a strength and conditioning specialist, my most rewarding moments aren’t found by having someone heave mountains of iron onto their shoulders. They’re found while provoking a client’s innate ability to improve his or her emotional orientation. As their body temperature rises, and respiration quickens, the corners of their mouths turn upward, and their brow releases its hold. This response is predictable, observable, and reproducible. The client leaves the session, metamorphosed, with altered mental energy, brighter eyes, and an invulnerable grin. I am, in a neurological sense, a drug pusher.
How to? If you’re feeling bottomed-out, and struggling with tricky emotions, a good first step is to add a mental health professional to your team. For many people, the optimal approach to exercise therapy, is to do so, while taking advantage of standard antidepressant therapy and counseling. Just like medication and counseling, each person has unique needs, in terms of their personal exercise protocol. In my opinion, and based on professional experience, a conservative approach, with measured increases in intensity, works best. In spite of my obvious personal bias, I believe that investing in an experienced personal trainer is as valuable as any investment one can make.
Good trainers listen. They know how hard to push you, and when to reduce intensity. If your trainer says, “No pain, no gain,” run away. FAST. A great trainer is fiercely observant, and pays attention to everything. They watch joint angles, breathing and heart rate, facial expressions, and even changes in facial skin color. They write programs specific to each client’s goals, ability level, and past fitness experience. Just like physicians, good trainers are hard to find. I’ve had the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the best in NYC, and I’m overjoyed and proud to be sharing my expertise with WNY.
How else does exercise benefit the mind? Forget about the intricacies of neurology for a moment, and imagine how you would feel, in the possession of a powerful body, with lower body fat, and upright stature. Imagine feeling fantastic after ascending three flights of stairs, rather than panting and feeling nauseated. Picture yourself fitting into your favorite outfits, perfectly. How would that make you feel? Pretty good, I think. Coupled with consistently healthy dietary habits, commitment to physical training can also be of benefit to cognitive performance.
In addition to frequent exercise, getting enough good, deep sleep is critical for mental health. It’s also important to look into relaxation techniques and stress-management strategies. For many people, some type of devotion to spiritual practice can make a significant difference.
Is exercise a replacement for psychotherapy? I don’t think so. No matter how fast you set your treadmill, you can’t run away from your worries and troubles. No man has built his chest muscles to be bulletproof enough to protect the delicate essence of his heart. Training can provide a tremendous advantage, but like all other modes of therapy, it is limited.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can benefit from exercise, my personal email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.