Thursday, June 18, 2015

Gyms & Mental Illnesses

       I believe the concept of a gym is a wonderful thing. Many people who don't deal with depression, anxiety or bipolar disorders are able to go to a gym and enjoy it fully, without any extra effort. I am not one of those people. I do have a gym membership, and yes, I do go. 

       The manner in which I run makes it nearly impossible for me to run on consecutive days. I like to push my limits whenever I lace up my running shoes. That means my body takes a bit of a beating. The next day, I need a low impact activity so that my joints and tendons can recover. When I was starting my exercise program I didn't need to go to the gym. I found that walks didn't require rest days. As I slowly progressed however, I wanted to be able to mix things up and exercise as often as possible. 

       I can't afford an elliptical machine, a stationary bike or a set of weights. I can afford a membership to an inexpensive gym that has those pieces of equipment. There are many fancy and expensive gyms out there, but I found that all I want is to be able to get my endorphins pumping on days that I can't run. I also want to get a little stronger. Since some readers live in areas that don't have gyms readily available, I will be putting up a post on low impact exercises that I do at home soon. 

       So, I am a person who has access to an inexpensive gym, and I want to be able to go.  I face several problems though. Gyms are an assault on the senses, (loud, bright, televisions flickering, etc.) which can lead me to become overwhelmed quickly. Add to that the fact that they are awash in sweat, germs, perky people and equipment that, in the beginning, I didn't know how to use, and it is easy to see why it took me so long to learn how to navigate a gym. After many failed attempts I finally figured out the strategies that work best for me when it comes to the gym.

1.  To cancel out all the sounds and put myself in a calmer frame of mind I always wear headphones. I like the type that fill my ear canals with that mushy rubber/plastic. Then, I put on music that relaxes me, but doesn't make me want to go to sleep. I like to turn it up to the point that I can't hear anything that is going on around me. Soothing music drowning out all the noise is a must for me.

2.  I solve the problem of the gym being bright, full of people and televisions with several techniques. If I have contacts in, I take them out when I get inside. I try to wear my glasses though. When I wear my glasses I can simply get to the machine and then take them off. There are the lucky few who can see well without the aid of glasses or contacts. When I forget my contact solution or case and am forced to see my surroundings, I simply close my eyes. I noticed that a lot of the people who seemed to be exercising the hardest often had their eyes squinted or closed. So, if others can close their eyes while they're working out because they are putting forth so much effort, then I can do the same thing to block others out (not to mention that I get to look like I am really working hard too, even if I'm not -hehe).

3.  All the sweat and germs that are rampant in gyms makes my skin crawl. Instead of waiting to wipe down my machine after I workout, I wipe it down with the sanitizer sprays that gyms have, as if I were going to conduct surgery on it, before I get on it. Yes, I wipe it down afterwards too. Knowing that I cleaned the machine to my satisfaction before I get on it and not relying on someone else to do the job alleviates my anxieties.

4.  When I was first starting out I had no idea how to use the resistance machines, much less how to lift free weights. I started with the machines because they are the simplest to learn. Typically there is a diagram on the machine showing exactly how to use it and which muscle group it works. As time has gone by I have added in free weights as well. I simply watched as many YouTube videos as I could on using free weights. I am not interested in becoming bulky or "ripped" in the least. However, I am interested in being stronger and more fit. All the fitness experts agree, that unless people use steroids or lift heavy weights for years, they have no reason to be concerned about adding major bulk or getting "ripped". 

       In addition to being stronger and more fit, lifting weights can also help alleviate many of the symptoms of mental illnesses. Many believe that cardio is the only way to get endorphin levels high enough to get relief from depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder symptoms. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that cardio is better overall for immediate relief from those disorders, but there is a way around that if someone wants to use resistance resistance machines/lift weights. It is called circuit training. 

       Circuit training is simply using resistance machines/lifting weights without a break in between exercises. For example, after I work my triceps, I go directly to working my chest, then to my biceps, then to my back, then to my shoulders, etc. I do all my exercises one time through and then take a few minutes to catch my breath. I repeat that for three complete sets of each muscle group that I want to work. 

       It took a long time to be able to do that, and I made the mistake of trying to do too much in the beginning. I was so sore and exhausted after the first few times that I thought I would never do it again. I learned that I simply had to ease my way into it. The reason I went to such great lengths to do this is because of all the benefits. I found mounds of research espousing the benefits of doing resistance training/weight lifting. The following are a few bullet points from The American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine (4) 5 377-396. They sum up, in a general way, some the research I found.
  • Resistance training studies demonstrate that it is a meaningful intervention for people suffering from anxiety.
  • A reduction in depressive symptoms is a typical byproduct of resistance training participation.
  • The research shows that depressed persons with sleep disorders show a 30% improvement in sleep from a regular resistance training intervention. These results appear to become most effective after 8-10 weeks of consistent resistance training.
  • Finally, resistance training appears to improve the body's central nervous system functioning which could positively affect a person's mental health. Improved cognition from exercise is likely to be multi-factorial adaptations involving new nerve cell generation in the brain.

       Going to the gym was a difficult road for me to learn to navigate, but once I did it was absolutely worthwhile. Low impact cardio machines that allow me to get my endorphins soaring while giving my joints and tendons a break is extraordinarily helpful. Resistance machines/free weights allow me to get a little stronger, reduce the symptoms of my illnesses and improve my overall health. After a great deal of effort, I have learned to be a fan of the gym. 
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As always I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click the link to the right and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource, and is staffed by wonderful people. 
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