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Ester Marsh column: Exercise is medicine for your mental health

We know exercise is medicine right? Your doctor has probably tried to get you to move more when your activity level is low or if you are dealing with health issues. Well, exercise is also medicine for your mental health! I have been very fortunate that my family was active my whole life and that I grew up in a country where walking and biking was, and still is, the main way of transportation.

Exercise has helped me through difficult times and has given me the ability to organize my brain when I go on a nice long walk. Sadly, we all know people who have not done well during the pandemic, especially the isolation, my dad being one of them. He isn’t a self-motivator and when everyone had to quarantine he looked for solace in books. Books are amazing and a marvelous way to add to a healthy lifestyle but only reading books alone is not going to do it. My dad is going to be 85 this December, and after mom died in November 2017, we were worried about him. He was married 57 years, and becoming a widow and not being a self-motivator, he actually did really well. We have enough outside events going on and again, he can ride to bike or walk anywhere.

Then 2020 happened, and lots of people had to flip a switch. People were worried about me, too. As most of you know, I am an extravert and I had people call me to make sure I was OK, since I didn’t have my big outlet at the YMCA with all my people. I truly appreciated that a lot, but I can also enjoy being an introvert. On the flip side, I also enjoy being quiet. I also love nature and my animals, and I can get so much balance, relaxation and peace taking care of them.

I also am an optimist. I believe life shapes us and we have choices to make. I have had great examples in my life how to deal with certain situations and to make the best in a bad situation. True, it’s easier said than done, but it is doable. Tons of studies have been done that with proper training and exercise you can “rewire” your brain. Look at the many success stories around us. We have not seen the full effects what this pandemic has done to us mentally, physically and spiritually. Many will finish their Ph.D. studying all the different effects of this pandemic.

There was a great article written by Dr. Christina G. Hibbert that lists eight keys to mental health. Here is a short version including my own interpretations;

  • Heal your mind and body with exercise. For example, yoga and breathing to calm an anxiety attack. A long walk or jog can help clear your mind and help come up with solutions.
  • Improve self-esteem. Exercising makes you feel better. You sleep better and are rested when waking up and are able to walk the stairs so much easier than when you didn’t exercise.
  • Exercise as a family. We were/are disconnected, literally and figuratively, self-quarantining from friends, family and work. How about within the same household? Exercising as a family brings us back together. Great talks can get started by exercising as a family. Get reconnected.
  • Get motivated. Exercise can help to get you motivated, especially if you exercise in a group, with a trainer or as a family. Someone will be looking after you.
  • Change how you think about exercise. When I work with people in class or trainings, I focus on health first. The rest will come. Too many times people set goals of weight loss, clothing sizes and more and get discouraged quickly.
  • Overcome roadblocks. I believe that I have heard it all: “I don’t have time,” “I have small children,” “they don’t have that class when I can go.” Schedule time in your day to exercise. Start with 30 minutes, walk in your neighborhood. Go to one of our beautiful parks — one just opened downtown, Bell Tower Green. Just move!
  • Get FITT, physically and mentally. Frequency-Intensity-Type-Time. How many times are you going to exercise? How hard? What are you going to do? How long are you going to do it? An example and perfect way to start is: F=5 days, I=a good pace, T=Walking, T=30 minutes a day (can be broken up in 3×10 minutes).
  • Implement vision and flourish. Maybe even set a goal, walk or run a 5K, or walk to top of certain stairs. Maybe swim a certain length.

More than ever, we are in need of help physically and mentally. In America, 60% of adults and almost 50% of children 8-15 receive no treatment for mental illness, and that’s very alarming. Check with your doctor, maybe get a referral to a psychiatrist or therapist and start exercising! Little steps at a time. Now if my dad would just listen…

Ester H. Marsh is health and fitness director of the JF Hurley Family YMCA.

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