If you live where winter means snow, ice and mud, you may have avoided exercising, or may have been promising yourself that when spring comes you will exercise regularly. Now is the time to begin. With spring right around the corner, you can’t afford to put it off any longer. And if you live where winter is just beginning, exercise will help keep you well through this dark season.
Regular exercise, whatever you can do, holds the promise of increased energy and renewed vitality. For people who experience depression or other troubling mental health symptoms, exercise often helps relieve these symptoms, and leads to increased levels of wellness and stability. People have reported that they sleep better, think more clearly, have less nervousness and anxiety, feel happy and content more often, feel better about themselves, lose weight, develop strength and enjoy a sense of well-being. Many people reported that they feel and look younger when they exercise regularly. I have heard of doctors who prescribe an exercise routine instead of, or in addition to, medications. For people who can’t afford expensive medications, exercise may be even more important. It is sometimes referred to as the cheapest and most available anti-depressant.
The First Step
Before you begin to exercise, call your physician and arrange for a physical examination if any of the following conditions is true:
- you haven’t been exercising at all for some time and you lead a sedentary lifestyle,
- you are over 60,
- you have a health problem or disability that might be affected by exercise,
- you haven’t seen your doctor in a long time, or,
- it just feels like the right thing to do.
- Ask the doctor to recommend, based on her/his findings, an exercise program that would be practical, safe and healthy for you. Your doctor may want to refer you to a physical therapist or another specialist for more information before making a final recommendation, or so that they can help you develop an exercise plan.
If you have been doing some exercise and know it is not enough, and do not have age, health or disability issues to address, begin your exercise program or your increase in exercise gradually. Your body adapts more easily to gradual change and you will miss out on all the aches and pains that come with too much exercise before your body is ready for it. A warm bath after you exercise the first few times will help to relieve any aches and pains in case you inadvertently over-exercise.
Assess the exercise you have been getting, whether it is exercise for the sake of exercise or exercise you get as part of your job or daily routine. For instance, if you walk up three flights of stairs each day to get to your office, consider that part of your current exercise. Perhaps you have to walk two blocks from the train station to your apartment. Or you spend some time each day bending and lifting as you stock shelves. Maybe you spend time providing care for one or several active toddlers.
Decide what would fit in your schedule that would provide you with some increase in your daily physical activity – again, not too drastic. You might start by walking for ten more minutes. Or you might build a 20-minute bicycle ride into your day. Perhaps it would be 20 minutes more working outside in your garden.
Choosing The Right Exercise Program For You
When setting up an exercise program that is right for you, focus your attention on what you enjoy. If you are the kind of person who enjoys team supports, you may want to sign up with the local softball league for some of your exercise. If solitary exercise feels best to you, think of things you can do by yourself. You may enjoy hiking but not swimming. A brisk ride on a bicycle may be perfect for you. Is it swimming, hiking, dancing, working out on exercise machines while watching videos, skating, outdoor chores like raking the lawn or cutting wood, walking, yoga, etc., etc., etc.? Any kind of exercise is acceptable!
You can do the same kind of exercise every day or vary it according to the weather, what you feel like and the things you need to get done. You may spend part of your exercise time doing one kind of exercise and part of the time doing another. You might work in the garden and then go for a walk. This makes exercise more interesting for some of us.
Health clubs are wonderful for people who enjoy exercising with others in an atmosphere that is pleasant and sociable. Joining a health club is a wonderful, but not a necessary treat if you can afford it. Don’t put off exercise until you have enough money to join a health club or until you can purchase expensive exercise clothing or equipment. Most exercise doesn’t take special clothing or equipment – just a lot of will power.
It may help you decide what kind of exercise you are going to do if you make a list of exercise options and post it in a convenient place. Then you can look at the list each day and decide how you are going to get your exercise that day. If it is raining you may want to dance to your favorite CD rather than taking your usual walk. If the softball team doesn’t have a game, you may want to catch up on outdoor chores.
Walk deserves special focus because it is often the easiest, most convenient and best exercise for many people. It works well because:
- No special equipment is necessary except a good pair of walking shoes – which you should have anyway.
- It doesn’t cost anything.
- It is non-competitive, so old feelings of not being as good as others don’t come up.
- You can walk anytime, anywhere that is safe. You may walk on the track at the local school after school hours. I find that walking on one of the rural walking trails or abandoned roads in our area has the added benefit of communion with nature.
- You can walk in whatever you happen to be wearing.
- You don’t have to change your clothes or take a shower after walking.
- It is very unlikely that you will incur the type of overuse injuries that occur with other types of exercise.
Difficulty Beginning Or Sticking To An Exercise Program
Like most people, you may have had difficulty beginning or sticking to an exercise program. You may feel that you don’t have time, that it interferes with other responsibilities and that you won’t enjoy it. Perhaps one or several of the following suggestions would help you solve this problem.
- Consider your exercise time as fun or “play” time, not as work. Everyone needs and deserves to have time to play.
- Ask friends and/or family members to exercise with you.
- Reward yourself each time you exercise or after you have followed your exercise plan for a specific length of time. You could put aside a dollar each time you exercise to save for something you have been wanting – like an article of clothing, a CD or a meal at a restaurant you enjoy. After a week of successful exercise you might treat yourself to a healthy lunch out with a special friend. After exercising becomes part of your routine, you won’t need to reward yourself, as you will find that the exercise itself is ample reward.
- Combine exercise with other strategies you use to keep yourself well such as:
– getting light exposure.
– using a light box
– focusing on positive thoughts
– connecting with family members and supporters
- Schedule exercise at the same time each day to provide structure and to help ensure continuation of your exercise program.
- If you find it difficult to exercise in the winter and in bad weather, you may want to get a piece of exercise equipment such as an exercise bicycle or rowing machine. You can often find these at very low prices in the bargain sections of the newspaper (being sold by people who had good intentions but never followed through), at second hand stores or at local “swap shops”.
Avoid sabotaging yourself. If you miss a day, several days or even weeks of exercise, don’t give up and stop exercising. Just start in again. If you have a long hiatus or have stopped exercising because of an injury or illness, start again gradually.
Regular exercise has many benefits. It may help you to stick to your exercise regime if you keep a record of your exercise and how it makes you feel. Each time you exercise, write a few sentences in a notebook that describes what you did, how you felt before you did it, how you felt after you did it, and any short or longer term benefits you are noticing. This helps to keep you on track and is a strong motivator if you review your writings from time to time.
Reprinted by permission from HelpHorizons.com
Mary Ellen Copeland, PhD, developed Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) with a group of people with lived experience who were attending a mental health recovery workshop in 1997. She is the original author of the WRAP Red Book, as well as dozens of other WRAP books and materials. She has dedicated the last 30 years of her life to learning from people who have mental health issues; discovering the simple, safe, non-invasive ways they get well, stay well, and move forward in their lives; and then sharing what she has learned with others through keynote addresses, trainings, and the development of books, curriculums, and other resources. Now that she is retired, and that, as she intended, others are continuing to share what she has learned, she continues to learn from those who have mental health issues and those who support them. She is a frequent contributor to this site.