Nope, it’s not a pill or the latest “miracle” cure from Dr. Oz—it’s good old fashioned exercise.
I wrote that on my Facebook wall the other day after blurting it out of my mouth following a much needed walk with my identical twin and my daughter. Sure, some readers’ eyes had fooled them into thinking I was talking about feet or chocolate, but I wasn’t. I was talking about sweat. Nasty, funky, dripping, icky, sticky, wonderful sweat.
I’d meant to say to my sister that “sweat dries,” because she felt a little gross after hiking the towpath trail with me. Instead, I verbally vomited my new catchphrase, “sweat heals.” I stopped, amazed at what my brain had decided upon, because it’s true.
The simple, easy reality is that often the best therapy is a great workout.
Let me backtrack a little bit for you.
Hopefully you’ll remember that I recently told you about how my concern for my daughter’s health led me into a downward spiral—into a dark, internal space filled with worry. This huge holding back of emotions also manifested physically when my back went out. Essentially, in my past two weeks I think I’ve exercised a whopping grand total of three times, and, if you know me at all, you’ll know that I’m one of those perhaps nutty people that absolutely adore working out as often as possible.
Actually, I love exercise so much that I was addicted to it at one point.
I turned my love of a feel-good sweat session into part of my eating-disordered lifestyle. (Hey, too much of anything isn’t good.)
At one point in my early 20s, I was running between 10 and 13 miles every day—as in no days off. I don’t think that it will come as a shock to you that I destroyed my feet and that, to this day, I have to watch for plantar fasciitis flare-ups.
Ironically, though, I wasn’t fully recovered from my eating disorder at all until I finally learned to embrace my occasionally insatiable appetite for physical activity—but I also had to learn to find balance, and to not let my exercise routines control my life (hence the “addiction” terminology).
I came to the conclusion, after considerable personal inquiry that lasted almost this entire decade of my 20s, that I need to exercise in order to be happy, healthy, self-confident, fit and simply put, to enjoy my life; I thought that I had learned to balance this need for exercise with my propensity to be controlled by it—until last week.
It came to me as a minor surprise, my recently destructive feelings of loneliness, sadness and even unattractiveness (dare I use that horrid “f”-word, fat).
My insightful husband was the first to tell me that I just needed to work out.
It seemed too simple, too easy—doesn’t it always?—but, as it turned out, he was right.
My sister arrived, and I took her to the trailhead with my daughter and her stroller in tow—and I’m telling you that after less than an hour of walking, and of working up that wonderfully addicting sweat, that I felt alive again.
I felt happy. I felt good. I felt pretty. I felt like I had lost five pounds.
Sure, it could have been water weight, but I’m fairly confident that I did not lose five pounds after a 30-minute stroll. It was mental. It had been my mind—made unhealthy by my neglected physicality—telling me that I was a gross, ugly, lone, lorn creature.
This isn’t a golden ticket hidden inside an astronomically expensive weight-loss candy bar that leads you to an enchanted, Johnny Depp-hosted place of calorie-free chocolate fountains—but it is true that exercise will help you become happier, fitter and more self-confident.
Still, I’m not writing this as a psychiatrist or an exercise physiologist. I have a degree in Geology, and I teach yoga and write. I won’t relate to you the specific effects on the brain that exercise has that are directly connected with depression relief. I won’t tell you that when I took my first yoga class in a week, that it felt almost as good as sex—and that it’s possible it felt this way because exercise and sex have similar effects on your body, brain and mood.
I will, however, suggest that if you think exercise won’t make you feel better, that you should strongly consider getting off your duff and trying it before you judge.
You don’t have to join a fancy-schmancy gym or attend expensive yoga classes either (although I do think both can be worth the money).
Take that walk I took the other day with my two girls. It did me a world of good. I alleviated a lot of uncomfortable sensations merely by alternating my two little feet on a gravel trail in a free park.
Stop thinking that you cannot lose weight or tone up or even be happy. You can be.
Don’t ignore the honest reality that maybe you do need a therapist (I saw one during my eating disorder recovery days). Possibly you do need medication (like I said, I’m not a doctor). Regardless, we are not solely over-thinking, vulnerably feeling human beings—we are animals.
I definitely believe that to be healthy people we need to also be healthy animals—and I fear that our society is getting so far away from this reality.
As a former anorexic with an addiction to exercise, I obviously understand how beneficial it is that we’re learning to accept that bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes—and that we’re demanding that our media embrace this ideology too—but I get frustrated. I get frustrated because it seems to me that we’re heading in the opposite direction—and do you remember when I said that even too much of a good thing isn’t good?
Learning to be a healthy society means that we stop using the “f”-word unnecessarily (cough, cough Kate Upton and Sports Illustrated); it means that we stop showing stick-figured models to young girls—and, I’ll argue, that it also means honoring our collective desire to be fit and healthy.
Because the opposite of an insecure anorexic is not always pleasantly plump. Sometimes it looks like an averagely-dimpled-with-cellulite tush clad in Lycra-spandex heading to the yoga studio. If that doesn’t paint a perfectly beautiful picture for you, then you’ll be even more disappointed when I tell you that this slightly lumpy derriere is also attached to a woman in a sweat-soaked tank top who could use a good shower.
Don’t be fooled by snake charmers, charlatans and your own monkey mind that believes in only complicated solutions—sweat can heal.
It can also be kind of icky, sticky, funky and nasty, but it does dry, and when it does, there’s a perky—possibly pleasantly plump—happy face shining back out into the world—and she’s ready to face her day, no trendy pills required.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel