How fitness can be a form of self-care and self-compassion

Over the past few years, there has been a subtle but powerful paradigm shift in the fitness industry. Sure, the marketing machine is still pushing the same old crap about abs and aesthetics, but pay attention and you’ll see signs of something else—the idea that fitness can be a form of self-care and self-compassion.

I had to learn this the hard way. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, my own mental health was a mess. The slow creep of dementia had finally stolen my mother forever; my family and I were left to pick up the pieces of our shared and broken lives as best we could, although as anyone who has experienced this kind of pain can attest, there really is no going back to normal. You are simply adapting to a strange new world inhabited by ghosts.

As a fitness professional, I figured I knew exactly how to handle all that stress. I hit the gym almost every day before the world shut down, pushing myself as often as I could. It wasn’t until most of my hair fell out that I began to question this approach. Soon after, I started seeing a therapist who taught me how our brains benefit from exercise—as long as you do it right.

The most helpful advice I’ve been offered is to think of exercise as a form of medicine. And when it comes to drugs, the minimum effective dose is usually enough. We don’t have to “unleash the beast” every time we step into the gym. In fact, a recent study showed that positive health benefits can be achieved with just 11 minutes of daily exercise. Here are some of those insights, along with some practical advice that can be applied to your own training.

Action overcomes anxiety

Our bodies are meant to move. We already know that a sedentary lifestyle predisposes us to a host of chronic diseases and conditions (heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, to name a few); what most people don’t realize is that sedentary people are twice as likely to suffer from depression as well.

So while it may be comforting at first when we’re stressed, anxious or depressed, the worst thing we can do is hide in bed. Regardless of the event that triggered these feelings, it is our brains that drag us into the swamp and burden us. Sitting in isolation only makes a bad situation worse.

As someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, I don’t say these things lightly. I know how hard it can be to prioritize physical activity when you feel like your whole world is on fire, but in situations like this, exercise really is the best medicine. That’s why I aim for 10,000 steps every day; it’s not about “cardio” or burning calories, it’s about maintaining my mental well-being.

What is your motivation?

Wanting to make a change in your life is a noble endeavor, or at least it can be if you’re motivated for the right reason. What is the correct reason? Why it’s love, of course. Love for yourself, of course, but also for the person you want to become.

The wrong reason should be obvious. Call it hate, call it self-loathing, call it “high standards”—however you choose to dress it up, a negative motivator often only adds to our insecurities and can turn what should be a joyful experience into a burdensome obligation.

Who do you think has a better chance of achieving their goals? The person motivated by self-love or the one motivated by self-hate? More importantly, which of these people do you think will actually enjoy this victory?

Sustainability is the reason

All personal trainers can rattle off a list of reasons why resistance training is so important. Yes, lifting weights can help build muscle mass, and muscle mass is essential for healthy aging. But for me, the most important reason to pump iron is that it builds something much more immediate and empowering: resilience.

Persistence is one of the rarest and most valuable qualities. It is the ability to withstand adversity, to keep your composure under duress, to bounce back from adversity, and to ask for more, please. What we’re talking about here is mental toughness, and if you ask me, there’s no better arena to develop that quality than the gym.

Deadlifts and squats; loaded carriages and pushing sleds; hill sprints and high-intensity interval training—all of these exercises are fundamental to the best training programs, not only because they build muscle, but because they reveal how healthy we really are. There’s a sense of empowerment that comes from knowing you can rely on your body in almost any situation. To borrow a phrase from punk rock renaissance man Henry Rollins, iron really is the best anti-depressant.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ontario.

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