Exercising the mind

In the last few weeks I have become an addict. I cannot go one day without my fix, and each day I need more than the previous day as my body has become tolerant and needs a higher dose to produce results. Thankfully this pursuit that I am referring to is simply exercise.

During the last few years I have joined the gym on at least 5 occasions, and whilst initially attending 2 or 3 times a week, within a few months (6 if I’m lucky) I have quit, telling myself that I don’t have time at the moment, and I’ll rejoin at a later date. The positive effects of exercise are universally paraded around to the point that its nauseating, but you can’t get away from the fact that it is good for body, mind and soul.

For me the physical effects of the exercise are incidental, an inevitable side issue that I don’t spend a great deal of time concerning myself with. It’s true to say that for someone like myself who has zero self confidence, extremely low self-esteem and a perception of other people viewing me negatively, the idea of getting into some kind of shape certainly appeals. Whilst mental health is so often out of your hands, you can’t use that excuse for physical health, and if I could look myself in the mirror and with anything other than revulsion or disappointment, then that would certainly be a welcome change. However it’s the mental effects that interest me, rather than the physical benefits.

Engaging in an intense workout has two benefits. Firstly, during the session itself the sheer act of pushing my body to its limit leaves virtually no energy reserves or mental space to focus on other worrys, thoughts or feelings. You simply exist in the moment, concentrating only on putting one foot in front of the other, or pedaling that extra few miles, trying with all your might to not only reach the pain barrier, but to burst through it and come out the other side. I don’t listen to music at the gym because I enjoy the fact that it is the only quiet time of the day within my mind, and I can temporarily put everything else on hold, and just exist in that moment.

The other aspect is the temporary euphoria that shrouds the body after a work out. Exercise produces serotonin, the chemical in the brain that affects mood and of which a person with depression has a diminished supply, and which antidepressants similarly try to increase. This clearly attests to the positive feelings post-exercise, but the problem lies in the reference to it being ‘temporary’. Within an hour at most (in my personal experience) the effects have worn off, and the the thoughts and feelings that have taken a brief rest begin to infest their way back in, burying deep into every pore, and ensuring that any sense of euphoria is all but a distant dream. The exercise induced tiredness, added to the medication and mental maelstrom induced exhaustion, precipitates the depression coming back all the more easily, as the flimsy barriers have little strength to resist.

Exercise, like alcohol or drugs, only provides temporary relief, and can only numb the pain or fill the emotional gap for so long. Whilst exercise is obviously a resoundingly positive pursuit, when compared to alcohol or drugs, as a way of dealing with pain, it still only provides a short term fix. This is obviously not the case for people that engage in physical exertion for fitness or appearance reasons as the results can last long term, but if you are pursuing exercise whilst praying it will help with your mental health (as I have)  then it can be only a diminutive stop gap between two difficult moments, rather than a way of vanquishing those troubling moments altogether. It is generally considered that people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs are trying to fill a void in their life and also attempting to escape their reality. For me the exercise isn’t an answer to my internal pain, but merely a way of coping until an answer does present itself (should that day ever happen). If for an hour every day I can feel slightly free, and distracted enough to be able to briefly put my anxieties and frenzied mind aside, then I will keep doing it as an hour is better than nothing. But I cannot bring myself to the resolution of this being much more than highly constrained positivity when there are still 23 hours in the day to feel lonely, insignificant and bereft of hope. But beggars can’t be choosers.

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