Let’s Stop Telling People to “Just Exercise”
Anyone with mental health issues has likely heard this phrase before, whether it came out of a family member’s mouth or even a medical professional’s. When someone is depressed or anxious, people’s response is often to advise them to “get moving!” Of course, I will not argue this scientifically proven fact—physical movement releases endorphins that are known to improve one’s mood. However, the irony of this idea is that exercise is often the last thing that someone dealing with mental health problems wants to, or is able to do.
At my lowest lows, I struggle to get out of bed, let alone put on sneakers to go outside. I watch the hours go by, with my only accomplishment being that I trudged to the kitchen to get a snack. Among the emptiness, all I hear is people around me telling me to go for a run.
As a varsity Cross Country and a Track runner for all four years of high school, I would be the first to list the benefits of running and why I love it so much. I had practice every day, from when classes ended to when it turned dark outside. Some days, I laughed with my teammates and shared the excitement with my coaches as I reached personal records. Amidst my best memories from high school running, however, are days where I could barely tie my shoelaces. Yet, there were no excuses for missed practices unless we were “violently throwing up.” Instead of attempting to explain to my coaches that I was mentally drained, I told myself that I was not physically sick so I had to show up and that I would feel better once I started moving.
I pushed through until my last senior meet, where my teammates’ tears of sadness were met with my tears of concealed relief. Arriving at college that fall, I soon watched the sport that I had loved for so long disappear from my life. This was not a deliberately planned act, but something that happened naturally. Although I still loved running deep down and it hovered in the back of my mind, my body and mind were conveying to me that I desperately needed a break from the ingrained pressure surrounding exercise and mental health.
While everyone around me was telling me to exercise, what I really needed was someone to say that it was okay not to. Maybe for some people, mustering up the energy to run is vital for their mental health—but for me personally, it was just a backwards cycle from any progress that I had made. I only realized later that this mindset that running would rid me of my issues had detrimental effects on my health.
After months of recovering from this misleading way of thinking and learning to give myself the breaks that I needed, I had never felt better. This is when I decided to start over with running, but it was going to be drastically different this time. Running was now going to be an activity that I would do when I was feeling like my best self, not when I had to force my brain into thinking it was productive for my mental health.
I kept up with running in this way—some weeks I would run every morning, while some months I struggled to even go once a week. Writing this, I realize that this just makes me seem like an inconsistent and disorganized person (I will not argue this), but for the first time in my life, I finally felt at peace with my relationship with exercise. There was no longer pressure for me to "fix myself" through running and it became an activity that truly made me happy.
I am definitely not recommending everyone to follow my routine because 1) your body will think you are crazy for this type of workout regimen (a little more consistency is something I am working on, I promise) and 2) everyone has their own unique internal struggles that need to be handled differently. All I hope is that this can serve as a sense of relief, knowing that it is not abnormal to want to stay in bed all day sometimes—even if all this means is taking a mental health break from exercise once in a while.
It is important for people dealing with mental health problems and for those surrounding them to understand that “just exercise” is not always a viable option and can be counterproductive. For all the success stories about exercise being the new therapy, there are also many shared experiences of sneakers collecting dust in the back of closets. Feelings should never be treated as mere excuses. If throwing up is a valid reason for taking a day off from exercise, mental health should be too.
Edited by Emiru Okada
Graphic by Maya Kubota