When Movement Is A Struggle
Disclaimer: I’m not a mental or physical health professional. Everything in this post is opinion and not medical advice. Talk to your doctor before starting any fitness regime.
One of the most bullshit things about mental health is the way that it corresponds to physical health. Every time I hit a rough patch I hear the same thing from my husband, my doctors, my friends: “You need to start exercising.” “Have you taken a walk today?” “Do you want to get on the treadmill?”
My response to that is generally “Fuck you. YOU exercise. I’m going to lay here and hate you.” Then they roll their eyes at me and go do whatever it is that people without mental illness do when they’re not nagging me.
I hate them in those moments because I know they’re right. Mental health and physical health are inextricably linked. When your body is working better, so is your brain.
It’s the worst. When I’m mentally unwell the last thing in the world I want to do is to move my body in any way that doesn’t involve a bed, the internet, or chocolate. (Granted, there are some types of strenuous physical activity that can make excellent use of all three, but when I’m depressed I’m even less interested in that than I am treadmills.) (Sex. I’m talking about sex.)
When I’m sick, I want to get better as fast as possible. If I want to get better, I have to move my body. Moving my body is hard because I’m sick. Going to the gym is impossible when just getting in the shower is something you have to ramp yourself up for.
I tormented myself over exercise for a long time. Every day I didn’t work out felt like a day I’d failed myself and everyone around me by not working hard enough to be well. Every time I did work out, all I could think was “If I’d been working out regularly, this would be easier. I’d look better. I wouldn’t be so tired. I’d be able to lift more weight, to run farther, I’d be better.”
I felt like a failure when I did exercise and I felt like a failure when I didn’t. It became easier to ignore the whole subject than to deal with the shame.
But I’m still mentally ill, I still want to be better, and exercise is still a huge component of mental stability. Even if I want to pretend it isn’t. Even on days when I putting on pants seems as difficult as having a rational discussion with a member of Westboro Baptist.
I had to learn to be gentle with myself and that meant learning to be okay with the things I’m not doing. I needed to develop small ways to nurture my physical well-being that didn’t overwhelm me, even on bad days. This is something I’m still working on, but there have been a few things that have helped, and because I’m a generous motherfucker I’m going to share them with you.
1: Sleep (aka “the thing I’m the worst at”)
“What? This is supposed to be about exercise, not about sleeping!” You might be saying. Well, guess what? You have to get enough sleep if you want any of your shit to work correctly. Even if you don’t struggle with mental illness, sleep deprivation will fuck your shit up. If you are mentally ill a lack of sleepwill make it exponentially worse.
You. Need. To. Sleep.
Go to bed early. Set a bedtime alarm, start a bedtime routine. Turn off your phone. If you don’t get enough sleep at night, take a nap during the day.
But sleep. You need it.
2) Drink enough water (but don’t poison yourself with it.)
This has two benefits. First, drinking water is good for you. Second, when you drink a lot of water, you have to pee more. When you have to pee more, you’re getting up to walk to the bathroom more. When you’re walking to the bathroom, you’re moving.
That brings us to:
3) Adjust your life just a little.
Park at the far end of the parking lot so you have to walk a bit further. Use a smaller coffee cup so you have to get up to refill it more often. Sit on an exercise ball instead of an office chair so you have to keep your muscles just a little more involved. (This did wonders for my chronic back pain.)
Small changes that don’t take much effort can make a big difference.
4) Take victory in the little things.
When you don’t want to get out of bed, you certainly don’t want to go for a run. Sometimes strenuous exercise is just impossible. That’s okay.
You know why? Because when getting out of bed is a challenge and you do it anyway, you’ve already had a victory, and you’ve moved. You sat up. You stood up. When you load the dishwasher, think about how many times you bend over and stand up straight. When you go to the grocery store you’re walking, bending, and lifting. All of these everyday things are victories, and all of those things are helping you be just a little bit healthier than you were before you did them.
5) Trick yourself.
Motivation is a bitch. I’ve never been able to say “You know what? I’m going to do the thing” and then follow that up by actually doing the thing unless something is forcing me to do the thing.
There are three factors to my personality that I’ve learned to use against myself: I’m prideful, I’m ridiculously competitive, and I hate letting people down.
That means that if I challenge someone to a Dance Central dance-off, I’m going to keep practicing until I hold the high score. If I see someone on Fitbit is doing better than me, I’m going to take a few extra steps to catch up. If I say I’m going to go work out with someone, I’m going to fucking go, no matter how much I don’t want to.
I shamelessly use other people to motivate myself, and it usually works. The tricky thing is that when they lose interest (or, in the case of Dance Central, give up because it’s obvious that I Am The Best) I lose my motivation.
6) Use the tools at your disposal.
Exercise can be expensive. Clothes, shoes, gym memberships, and trainers all cost ridiculous amounts of money. Even if you feel up to heavy exercise, it doesn’t mean you can afford to.
A Fitbit is a nice motivational tool. It’s also completely unnecessary because there are a million smartphone apps that do the exact same thing Fitbit does, except for free. In fact, a lot of phones come with fitness apps pre-loaded.
You can use your phone to set an alarm to remind you to stand up and stretch or to take a short walk around your living room, or find a meditation, yoga, or exercise videos on YouTube. If you have an Xbox One, there is a fitness program that offers both paid and free exercise videos.
And the most important thing:
Forgive yourself for what you don’t do.
You meant to go to the gym and you didn’t? That’s okay. There’s tomorrow. You stayed up until 4 am and you’re fucking tired? That’s okay. You can go to bed earlier tonight. If you don’t go to bed earlier tonight, or you don’t go to the gym tomorrow, that’s okay, too. There’s not an expiration date on your ability to take a walk. There’s not a deadline on wellness. You’re not failing.
Be gentle with yourself.
: [Photo credit: Patient Care Technician]