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Motion can help.

For a while now I’ve been thinking through the different coping strategies I use, day in and day out, hour by hour, to stay as functional as I can be. I am trying to determine if there is a “sure thing,” a choice I can always count on to make a difference. And I’ve been struggling to come up with one.

Almost everything works for me sometimes and not other times, depending on the intricate chemistry of how a strategy combines with my state of mind, level of fatigue, time of day, location, and several other elements of my immediate circumstance. So at times being alone helps, and other times it has a negative effect. Often a good cup of coffee boosts me up, and other times it falls flat. Listening to a particular song I’m into can settle a spinning anxious mind – sometimes.

At this point in my ongoing scientific research into myself as a human being coping with crisis, I have determined that one thing has moved the needle for me – sometimes a tiny tick, sometimes a big sweep, or anywhere in between – every time, so far. And that is motion. Research says that movement helps our bodies produce endorphins that lift our moods. Anything that improves the health of our organs and muscles can make us physically feel better and more able to cope. For many, motion takes up mental bandwidth and settles agitating, brain-flooding thoughts.

Two existing notions about exercise tend, in my opinion, to do more harm than good: One, that certain kinds of motion are inherently more beneficial than others, and two, that more is always better (for example, the idea that running is better than walking, or that running a 10K is better than running a 5K). To me, everything depends on the person and the situation. If someone is a frequent marathoner and is driven to attempt a 50-miler, that’s what that person needs. If someone is so depressed or ill that he or she can hardly get out of bed, and one day can stand up and walk around the house for 30 minutes, that makes a difference too. It’s possible that these two vastly different activities could have the same incremental amount of difference for two individuals in vastly different situations.

Often we judge ourselves harshly with how much and how often we are able to exercise, and what type of exercise we do. We might not feel as virtuous as so-and-so who bikes faster, farther, or more often. We might feel weaker than so-and-so who is at the gym four days a week at 6:30 am. However, no one is immune from self-judgment. The frequent biker may feel diminished next to an Ironman triathlete she knows, and the gym rat may compare himself to a friend who lifts at 5:30 AM six days a week. There’s always a way to feel not good enough. But if we set up that gap between expectation and reality, we can fall into it, and get hurt. How can you enjoy what motion can do for you what if you demean yourself for not doing more? Do we negate the benefits of what we do manage to accomplish by wishing it were other than it is?

I believe ANY type and amount of motion can help, as long as it requires some level of focus and effort. If you are not moving at all, that lap around the house is more than you were managing before. From zero, going to one can make a difference. You are the only one who truly knows what kind of motion and how much will produce endorphins and refresh your mind. This varies enormously even for an individual person. On some days, what I have energy and time for is five minutes on the yoga mat or several trips up and down the stairs. Other days I’ll run five miles, or do yoga for 45 minutes. Sometimes all I can manage is to do a plank pose in my kitchen while I’m waiting for the coffee to brew.

Set aside the judgment. Do what you can, accept what and how much it is, and take from it what arrives. A mile or 15, a lap around the bedroom or a mountain hike, a pushup or a TRX class, a walk to the Laundromat or an Avon walk for breast cancer, whatever works for you is what works.

This includes not moving, of course. For me, sometimes the whole day zips by or dribbles away and I find that I haven’t moved deliberately at all, even if I meant to, even if I really wanted to, even if I put on my running clothes first thing in the morning in an attempt to motivate myself. At that point I often spin around in my mind, frustrated, angry, counting in my head the number of days I’ve exercised in the past couple of weeks and deciding how I feel about it. Then I step back, take a breath, and work on accepting what is. I say to myself, this is what you could do today, and it’s ok. I can do this much.

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