The Meat and Potatoes of Life
Brain-building: Hitting the gym for mental strength
Special to Stars and Stripes January 27, 2023
Last week, I did something that might seem like a mundane, ordinary, every day task by most people’s standards. But for me, it was a monumental undertaking that required me to battle my demons, silence my inner naysayer and extract what was left of my tattered and torn willpower in order to complete this simple, everyday activity.
During my 56 years of life, I’ve been consistently active. I was a college swimmer, reluctant runner, step aerobics fan, group exercise class regular, weightlifter and avid power walker.
Due to foot problems that made power walking painful, I adopted an ambitious weight-lifting program in early 2020. I was gaining momentum just when the pandemic struck. During the shutdown, I was forced to power walk again and ended up developing a persistent limp. Two foot surgeries, a monthlong bout with respiratory infections and many sedentary, depressing months later, I found myself in a mental and physical dark tunnel, unsure of the way out.
I didn’t know exactly what was wrong with me, but I just didn’t feel right. I felt low, unmotivated, weak and susceptible to self-destructive behaviors like overeating, staying up late and procrastinating. After the holidays, I resolved to snap out of it.
But then, the unthinkable happened — our dog unexpectedly passed away.
Without the constant, therapeutic presence of our beloved yellow lab Moby, my desire to improve my general mood became a desperate plea for mental strength. While I was grieving in that abyss of despair, an idea occurred to me: Could I possibly begin to build back my mental strength through physical activity? Would lifting weights or riding a bike or doing yoga give me the fortitude I need? It was worth a try.
That first day, I was at the gym for 30 minutes, during which I rode a stationary bike on Level 4, without hills or inclines. I listened to my most recent audio book and watched a television mounted on the wall playing something uninteresting about basketball. Afterward, I wiped the bike clean, filled my water bottle and left the building.
That’s it. Nothing more.
Since then, I’ve been to the base gym every couple of days, each time riding the stationary bike for 30 minutes on Level 4. One day, I added hills. Another day tried the rowing machine for ten more minutes. I’m toying with the idea of doing a set of planks here and there. No biggie.
If I keep this up, I won’t lose a significant amount of weight. My middle-aged paunch won’t suddenly become a six-pack. I won’t sign up for any Iron Man competitions. I’ll never be bikini-ready.
But, I will undoubtedly be stronger.
It is well-established that physical exercise reduces mental stress, thereby lessening symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improving overall health and mental well-being. Furthermore, exercise has also been shown to improve mood, self-esteem and cognitive function, and alleviate symptoms of social withdrawal. Evidence also indicates that exercise reduces symptoms of PTSD and decreases the chances that someone will develop the disorder. Some studies show that women may get more psychological benefits from exercise than men.
The science behind the positive psychological effects of exercise involves increased blood circulation that creates new brain cells through neurogenesis and influences the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to mediate stress through a complicated communication system in our brains’ amygdala and hippocampus. Brain chemistry changes during exercise, releasing anxiety-inhibiting serotonin and feel-good endorphins, which can be as effective as taking anti-depressant medications.
There’s no need to get lost in the scientific weeds. Considering that about half of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder in their lifetime, clearly everyone can benefit from adding exercise to their weekly routines.
As for me, in the brief time that I’ve been exercising, I’ve clearly noticed an improvement in my mood on the days I exercise, I’m sleeping better, and I feel more confident that I’ll get through this rough patch. Although I’m not entirely out of the tunnel yet, I can definitely see the light and I’m headed in that direction.
Read more at themeatandpotatoesoflife.com and in Lisa’s book, “The Meat and Potatoes of Life: My True Lit Com.” Email: email@example.com