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Fitness a key element to good mental health

The importance of fitness

Jenny Fisher, better known as “fitfishmom” on Instagram, certainly does not appear to be someone who struggled with her fitness during the height of COVID by the look of her chiseled abs.

But even the enthusiastic fitness influencer and Get Salty By Jenny Fisher fitness app owner had her moments.

“I found myself switching from whole food-focused meals to frozen chicken nuggets for dinner after week three of COVID. I had enough. I was exhausted.” - Jenny Fisher, fitness influencer

And if someone like Fisher found herself feeling run-down and a little defeated by COVID, just imagine how the majority of others felt while being low on energy and sporting a much flabbier middle section. COVID took its toll on everyone.

In fact, the obesity rate went up 45.7% and average weight gain was 20 pounds.

Dr. David Geier, a sports medicine physician, noted that the physical impact wasn’t even the only problem. Many adults attributed their increase in depression and substance use due to COVID.

“You look at the pandemic and obesity rates have skyrocketed," Geier said, referring to recent mental health statistics. "The average weight gain is 20-something pounds for adults, but mental health issues have gone up 41 percent.”

Now, more than ever before, Americans have an increased awareness regarding mental health issues in our society. But many people are still looking for doctors to prescribe anxiety meds or antidepressants to help.

While such medications can be necessary in cases, Geier noted in one of his recent blogs that routine exercise "decreases anxiety by 60 percent.”

Even still, doctors often seem quick to prescribe a medication for many mental health concerns.

“A lot of doctors are overwhelmed seeing more patients in less time than ever before and it’s just, I don’t want to say easier, but you’re doing something good for somebody and it doesn’t take you having to see them over and over again,” Geier says.

He suggests people try exercise first to see if that allows them to get through their tough periods.

“Struggling with depression and anxiety throughout my life, strength training gave me an outlet to focus on improving myself every day,” Emily Goodwin, a former collegiate dancer, says.

For proof that exercise is a crucial component in gaining a healthy mental state, “there’s a study that says exercise led people to be happier,” Geier says.

Jackie Burstrom, a fitness teacher in Tennessee, can attest to this.

“I am a troll when I do not exercise. I don’t even know myself,” she said. “I love building myself up so I can build up those around me.”

By no means is exercise the clear road to ‘zero anxiety and depression’, but it is worth trying implementing physical activity in your routine prior to a reliance on medications that contain sedatives.

Geier notes that medications are relatively easy to get.

“That’s how our society is, we go for quick fixes,” he said, advising people to try exercise before medication. “If that gets you through your periods of your heart pumping and mind racing, then it’s certainly better to do that. And if not, then absolutely try medications.”

In addition to being happier and feeling less depression and anxiety, the habit of routine exercise is an essential facet to a successful and positive life.

“Exercise, I believe, is a keystone habit,” Geier says, recommending people read, "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg. "If you can implement that habit, all these other positive habits follow.”

Jackie Burstrom saw big changes from implementing a healthier lifestyle.

“I think the biggest impact fitness has had on me is the confidence to build my healthy habits,” she said. “`If I’m able to dedicate myself to myself through fitness, then I can dedicate other pieces of me to all facets of my life.”

These habits that develop simply through routine exercise truly do trickle into all aspects of one’s life. Just ask Emily Goodwin.

“Pushing myself to lift one more rep, five more pounds, or one last set has shown me that I am so much stronger than I think I am. Understanding my internal locus of control, what decisions I can make to better my life, has improved my life outside of the gym forever.” - Emily Goodwin

Goodwin underwent an ACL surgery that prevented her from being able to do her typical physical training. But this did not halt her exercise.

“Regardless of how frustrated and angry I became during my recovery, I always felt instant relief after moving my body, even in the smallest way,” she says. ”I believe my post-surgery recovery was the first time I truly recognized the importance exercise has on my mental health.”

Of course, it can certainly feel daunting to jump into a fitness routine and that’s totally okay. You don’t have to sling around weights or become a track star to be considered living an active lifestyle.

“Just get outside and walk,” Geier suggests. “The vitamin D from the sun is huge for your mental health too.”

In fact, walking was many people’s main source of exercise throughout COVID.

“After my gym closed, I was forced to make the decision to remain active, or complain about the situation and stop working out,” says Goodwin. “My daily walks and bodyweight workouts became the highlight of my day in a very dark, isolated time. I learned first hand that something is truly better than nothing.”

In fact, she found one simple activity in particular was very helpful for her mental stability.

“Physically and mentally, taking daily walks helps me relieve stress and incorporate low-intensity cardio into my day,” she added.

And stress is something everyone experiences, probably on a daily basis. These high levels of stress result in an increase in cortisol levels which are attributed to inflammation and the dreaded weight gain.

Geier pointed out that both sleep and exercise are the two biggest factors in lowering cortisol.

The truth is, no one is constantly motivated to workout all the time. To help with that, Geier suggests, “temptation bundling.” So if you have a favorite show, you watch it while you’re exercising.

“Then, you’re bundling something you want to do, with something you don’t want to do,” he said. “Whatever makes you exercise, I’m all for it.”

Burstrom spends the majority of her day stuck sitting at a desk job, so she has found that exercising in her free time has had a significant positive impact on her overall mood.

“Work can be extremely draining as I deal with clients on a daily basis," Burstrom said. "My job is also a desk job, so I genuinely look forward to the time I get to spend moving and focusing on me.

"I often start my mornings with a workout because it allows me to go into work, or just my day in general, with a feeling of accomplishment and something productive has already been done which is great to boost my overall mood," Burstrom added.

In addition, there are other means of exercising to try to switch it up.

“I go to yoga. If I’m not feeling motivated to workout then, my body is telling me something. So is my mind,” she says. “Yoga provides what my mind needs, then I feel that my body follows through.”

Exercise helps in multiple ways from acting as a stress reducer, mental health benefits, and as an overall confidence booster.

“I like to like being myself. I finally don’t want to be anyone else,” Burstrom says.”I want to be me and that feels good.”

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