While the U.S. Capitol was being overrun by insurrectionists yesterday, I went for a walk. A few hours later, after having been glued to Twitter trying to make sense of it all for far longer than I’d like to admit, I went for a run. It helped.
I will never argue that exercise is sufficient to meet everyone’s mental health needs, but it beats a lot of other coping mechanisms, like drinking and doomscrolling and crying in the shower. (Satire site Reductress probably said it best: “Woman Who Says Exercise Is Like Therapy Must Have Some Pretty Light Trauma.”)
If you’re working through truly difficult things right now, take my fellow writer Sam Blum’s advice and get yourself a therapist. You have plenty of options, from in-person sessions, to telehealth visits, to text-based platforms. We also have a rundown of ways to calm you panic and anxiety, including a video you can watch while you’re having a panic attack.
Why exercise helps
There are two reasons to exercise when your thoughts are spiraling out of control. One is for the benefits it may bring to the rest of your day and to your long term health. Exercise tends to use up nervous energy, calm our brains down, and promote better sleep. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America notes that people who exercise are less likely to have anxiety and depression, possibly because exercise helps us cope better with stress.
Exercise isn’t a cure-all, and some people don’t get much of a mental health benefit from it. But exercise is also a way of taking care of your physical body, and that contributes to your overall well-being — even if you are one of the people who don’t see a direct impact on your mental health.
But the other important reason is, I think, simply that it gives you something to do. When I’m running, I can’t check my phone. I accept that for this hour, this minute, I am putting one foot in front of the other.
The best part of your day
This fall, I read an essay on the pleasures and mental health benefits of walking. I kind of skimmed through it at the time, but two lines in it stuck with me, and I remembered them every time I headed out for a walk or a run, or chose to lift weights in my garage while the world was falling apart around me. The writer, Sarah Miller, said this about using her elliptical to manage depression:
It did make me less depressed while I was doing it, but once I finished I was pretty depressed again. I told my friend this … he just shrugged and said, “Just do it anyway. That’s one whole hour where you’re not depressed.”
This seemed like a good bargain. How much would I pay, while in the throes of anxiety, to spend a whole hour not being anxious? Or even being slightly less anxious? Walking had always seemed like a bit of a time-waster to me, even when I knew it was beneficial, but now I saw it in another light.
I skimmed that essay in September. According to Apple Health, which tracks my steps anytime my phone is in my pocket, I doubled my average daily step count that month, going from a summer average of somewhere in the 3,000s to nearly 7,000. The following month, I walked even more.
In early November, as we awaited the election and then the election results, I fully leaned into my new coping mechanism. From Nov. 3-13, every single day was over 11,000 steps.
I take two walks a day sometimes, depending on how I’m feeling, and they’ve gotten longer over time. This brings me to the other thing I took from Miller’s essay, the epiphany she reached as she extended her own walk:
These two walks overlapped — it’s not a large town — and one day, while I was doing the first walk, it occurred to me I could just add the second one and walk longer. You would have thought I was discovering electricity. I could just go and make the best part of my day twice as long?
You can, you really can. If you run or walk or do dance workouts from YouTube as part of your mental self-care, you can do more of them. (From a physical perspective, it may not be wise to suddenly double your running mileage, but most of our bodies would be fine with taking an extra long walk or yoga session. Choose sensibly.)
What you do on your walk or run or other form of exercise is up to you. I love hiking or running through nature, but my neighbourhood streets are closer and more time efficient. I pick the quietest streets and loop through them. Sometimes I listen to podcasts or music, choosing my soundtrack based on whether I want to escape my thoughts or mull them over.
I highly recommend, if you’re feeling down or anxious or don’t know what to do, getting up and doing whatever form of exercise makes the most sense to you. The best part of your day awaits.