Rules for a Happy Life: Exercise

Opening a doorWant to solve depression without drugs?

Me too.

So when I say exercise, it is different from just moving around when I get bored or feel like I need to get out of the house before I lose my damn mind. I mean work out. This is more than doing a few situps or pushups or walking on a treadmill for a half hour and feeling good about myself. Working out means I sweat hard, feel a little sore, and stop only after I have kept going a few minutes after I thought I had nothing left to give.

Last year I started tracking my activity as a way to tell me the truth about how much I am moving or sitting each day. I can rationalize that binge-watching all of Angel is working because my brain is doing something. My proclivity to self-delusion is that powerful. I Jedi mindtrick myself into sloth.

In the fall of 2014 I got this little Vivofit that Garmin makes to help me out. It tracked my steps, sleep, and the kind of movement I was making. It was cool because it was waterproof and I could leave it on all the time. The first thing I noticed is that I was a very stationary chap. Of course, last winter was way too cold to be thinking about going out for a brisk walk especially because I had gotten used to being sedentary. But I had a YMCA membership mainly so my kids and I would have something to do during the winter weekend months. Here’s the kicker: There is an exercise room with all of the treadmills, ellipticals, and weights literally 100 feet from the front door of my building. A couple of years ago, I went to the Y to workout for at least 30 minutes every day, but after I moved in 2014 that and all the rest of my good habits died off which is when I started to get sluggish and down. Moving is stressful, people. All of your routines get crushed under the anxiety of change and you have to find a way to get back into it. I did not.

So why didn’t I just hop across the street? It was anxiety pure and simple. I felt out of shape and I did not want to look out of shape in front of others because all of that self-talk nonsense was polluting my brain. Even after I started running I refused to go into that room. It’s absurd to me now, but back then it was a big ass wall I did not have the will to break through.

After I started running, I got a bad case of iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) which meant my knees hurt like hell. I took about 2 1/2 weeks off but in that time I had to get my butt in that workout room to build up some strength in my hips and get on that treadmill to focus on form a bit. All I had to do was walk in the door and whatever fear or anxiety I had was gone the second I opened the door. Eventually my knees felt better and I started running outside again. I would go back to that room when I got tendonitis and now I am going back because winter decided to show up and I am not in the mood to run in that mess right now.

The reason I am telling you this little story is because if you have anxiety about exercise, about whether or not you can do it, if you will look foolish, if you will be sore afterwards, etc. just open the damn door! Of course you are going to be sore. Of course you might not look that great. The only people who look great working out are the people in the videos and even then, most of the time they are sweating and getting stinky and that is their job! If you are not looking somewhat constipated, sweating, and all around nasty while working out, you aren’t doing quite enough. This is all about effort.

Eventually my little tracker was not enough. Somewhere I went from a person who needed to track his activities who also runs to a runner who also tracks his activities. I got a Polar m400 because it can do both. I can get all of my GPS running data and track my activity during the day and night. It also has a heart monitor that I strap onto my chest. That’s where the real workouts began. In the gym, I focus not so much on speed or distance but on time and effort. I want to get my heart up and keep it in a solid “cardio” zone for most of my workout. I am 41 so my maximum heart rate is around 179 bpm. When I workout I am trying to get that up to a minimum of 150 for the duration and to peak it out to about 160-165. If I am outside and running a course with hills, that’s about what my body does so I want to replicate that effort inside. This means I am working out my heart and processing all of the sugar stores in my body. All those carbs I ate the day before are burning off and my fitness to run longer and faster improves.

Here’s the magic. When I work out like this, my mood instantly changes and I feel better about everything. My sleep improves and my quality of life gets more focused and supercharged. I wake up. My heart rate is like a natural drug and it is part of what I would like to call a totally drug-free solution for depression.

So if you are going to the gym and never see or feel results, check your heart rate. Pay attention to the effort your body is actually putting into the work. Then increase your effort regardless of how fit you are today. That’s what counts. Stop looking at the person who has been coming into the gym for 5 hours every day wearing matching gym clothes they got for Christmas and the cement mixer sized container of protein shake they have waiting for them. You’ll demotivate yourself and never want to come back. Put on your headphones and listen to yourself. Then work it out. That 30 minutes at least every other day will change your life. In a couple of weeks after you start, you will be amazed at where you can go.

But you gotta first, open the damn door.

Part four of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.

Rules for a Happy Life: Move

Stuart_Smalley

Stuart Smalley was wrong.

Thinking my way out of bad thinking does not work. I used to confuse action with things I could do with my mind alone. For the longest time if I had a bad thought I believed that all I had to do was pray or meditate and replace the bad thought with something good.

If I was starting in on the monologue of “I’m worthless, I’m stupid, I’m useless, I’m expendable,” I believed that all I had to do was reverse the spin in my mind with affirmations. “I’m valuable, I’m smart, I’m useful, I’m special.” Or I would pray, “Lord help me see my worth…blah blah blah…”

But I always felt absurd doing that and it never helped. I think if it helped, I would feel less absurd. No matter how much I worked on it, my thinking would come back to its pitiful default. Then I would feel worse because I couldn’t seem to do what worked for others.

If something isn’t really working, no matter how much people tell you that it should work, just stop. You need to do something else. So I stopped praying and self-affirming. I stopped reading about it or thinking about all of those things that I had been told by well-meaning people for whom these methods had worked. Sure, I could get temporary relief from prayer, but I would always return to the fundamental structures in my brain that were firing off these awful messages that were mentally and physically exhausting me on a daily basis. I refused to accept the belief that this sort of thinking is just “who I am.”

The solution was literally to get out of my head with physical movement. The problem is in my brain which is a mass of chemicals and energy and moving my body helps to change what is happening in there at the most fundamental levels. Just doing the Stuart Smalley thing by telling myself I am “good enough, smart enough, and people like me” was like trying to clean up a spill on the floor with a soaking wet towel. The towel might be fine, but I needed to wring that thing out before it would work. Moving my body is like wringing out that towel.

If I am bored and want a snack even if I am not hungry, I go for a walk. If I am feeling lonely or stressed that just means I have energy I need to release so I walk over to the YMCA and work it out on a treadmill or something more low impact if I am injured. In good weather I will just go for a run. Or I will take the dog for a long walk. This is basically a specific method of leaning-in to the problem. 100% of the time since I started this, whichever thoughts were bothering me or whatever emotions were starting to weigh me down disappeared.

By moving as a response to negative or harmful thinking, the thoughts evaporated almost instantly. The payoff is that I have effectively conditioned my mind to the degree that these thoughts, which I have been a victim to my entire life, are very rarely present anymore. Whatever was in me that responded to the environment with depressive thinking is basically gone.

By moving my body, I have evicted my depressive self from my mind. It has taken several months and practice not just every day, but every time the thoughts appear and as soon as they appear. Depressive thinking is tenacious. It is incredibly difficult at the beginning because it is so unconscious. It takes time and practice just to build awareness of when and under what circumstances it happens. But it gets easier because with consistent and equally tenacious practice, the thoughts begin to fade. And fade they have.

Now I move my body mainly because it’s fun and I feel good doing it, especially if I am having a bad day. I now schedule my days around it. I know that the more I do this, the more likely my depressed visitor will never want to stop by for a visit. I don’t even need the towel to clean up the mess because the mess no longer exists.

Part two of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.