fitness

"My mental health improved almost immediately." 5 unexpected ways working out changed my life.

This post deals with depression and might be triggering for some readers.

Pretty soon here, it will be three years to the day that I made one of the best decisions of my entire life. Three years since I got up one morning and decided that I was actually going to work out on the stationary bike my husband set up in our shared office area instead of just thinking about it. Three years since I made up my mind to do the same every weekday morning after that, even if it killed me.

At the time, I had zero intention of one day becoming a fitness enthusiast. I like food, naps, and binge-watching Netflix way too much for that. I didn’t picture myself getting ripped, and I certainly never imagined that I’d one day sit down to write an article like this one and mean every word of it. I was just sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, but as it turned out, that was all I needed to start changing my life for the better in significant ways.

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Some of the things that have happened to me over the past three years were things I expected if I managed to stick with my plans. I lost body fat, built muscle, and had more energy. But many of the benefits that came with daily workouts I never would have seen coming in a million years. The following are some good examples.

1. My mental health started improving almost immediately.

Like everyone else on the planet, I’ve been told a million times that exercise is pretty much a cure-all for whatever ails you, serious depression included. I also wrote it off almost immediately as feel-good bullshit. I figured that sort of thing only applied to bored Karens that think getting the blues from time to time is the same thing as being clinically depressed.

I, on the other hand, had real, crushing, clinical depression. I’m talking about the kind of depression that makes you suicidal from time to time and causes your life to start falling apart eventually if you don’t manage to get on top of it. I sincerely doubted that a new pair of jogging shoes and some home workout equipment was going to do a damn thing about that.

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When I first started working out, my depression had become so bad, my hair was full of mats because it seemed like too much trouble to brush it most days. I don’t think I ever made it all the way to true alcoholism, but I was nevertheless consuming a troubling amount of alcohol to deal with everything I thought was wrong with my life. I knew that I needed to change something.

From the first day I started working out on that bike in the mornings, I could have sworn I felt better mentally and emotionally. At first, it was just a little bit, so I thought it was just my imagination or perhaps the happy side effect of doing something I knew I should be doing for a change. But then, the effect increased until I felt almost normal most days. Some days, I felt downright upbeat — something that honestly shocked the pants off me.

Exercise didn’t cure my depression or anything, but it has done something even medication could never do for me. I still have depression, and I probably always will because I’ve had it since I was a kid. But it’s manageable now. I’m productive, healthy, and well-adjusted again. I enjoy things again, and I appreciate being alive. I can’t remember the last time I wished I was dead or thought the kinds of morbid thoughts that led me to that place.

2. I finally learned how to stick to a routine.

I used to believe routines were only for uptight, constipated people who think living is about doing the same boring, pointless activities day after day, whether it makes sense or not. They weren’t for artsy free spirits like myself. I didn’t need a calendar or a routine to tell me what to do. I had my instincts and feelings for that, and for a long time, I thought that made me better than people who believed in concepts like discipline and delayed gratification.

Hitting my own personal version of rock bottom made me realise that there was a lot wrong with how I thought and lived. I worked for myself as a full-time writer by that point, but I’m not really sure how I was keeping up. I wasn’t organised in the least, and I certainly didn’t plan for my business's future. Running things so loosely didn’t kill my business, but it didn’t do it any favours, either. I needed a routine. I just didn’t realise it yet.

Making up my mind to work out daily according to a set schedule that never changed turned out to be the first step toward establishing a proper morning routine for the first time in my life. I worked out first thing when my feet hit the floor because I knew it wouldn’t get done otherwise. At first, it was just for half an hour each time. Then it became an hour and, later on, 90 minutes.

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Not only did I learn to genuinely enjoy exercising because of how good and productive it made me feel, but I eventually came to like getting up in the morning, too. I’m not a natural morning person, so I don’t like getting out of bed and likely never will. I do look forward to doing something good for me first thing and starting my day on a productive note without exception. I like knowing what to expect from my day when I know the outcome will be positive.

I still don’t believe in doing things a certain way because that’s what society tells you to do. Eventually, it occurred to me that routines can be a good thing if approached correctly, though. When they’re customised to fit your needs, routines lend much-needed structure to your days. They‘re not about filling your time with activities you hate because you’re allergic to fun and scared to be alone with your own thoughts for two seconds. They’re about making sure you have ample time for the things that matter to you, fun included.

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3. My thought process became sharp as a tack.

I had this huge disconnect with my body for most of my life that’s hard for me to explain. Suffice it to say that I called it a meat suit because that’s how it felt — like something the real me was forced to wear, take care of, and lug around like some big, rotting sack of inconvenience. 

These feelings are exactly why I thought activities that built up the mind instead of the body were superior things to do with your time. I still felt that way at the time I made daily workouts a part of my life. Then I realised that my workouts weren’t just making me stronger physically. I also appeared to be getting smarter, sharper, and more creative. My focus improved, as did my memory. I’ve always been smart and relatively quick mentally, but I hadn’t felt like this since childhood, probably. Maybe not even then.

Eventually, I started feeling the urge to see what I could do with this newfound mental acuity. Instead of writing about the same old copywriting topics for the same old clients because it was easy, and I was used to it, I started branching out and going after bigger brands to add to my resume. And I landed a few of them, too. 

I started wanting to write my own stuff again, too. That’s how I eventually wound up on a bunch of the platforms I’m on now, Medium included. I felt the urge to brush up on the Spanish and French I learned in high school and wound up being bitten by the language bug. So, after I made some progress on those, I started learning others — voraciously so. I eventually started studying other topics for fun and self-enrichment, as well, often doing my studies while I exercised in the mornings.

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I thought I was done discovering new talents to develop or passions to get excited about now that I’m in my 40s. It turned out that I wasn’t even close, and I have my workouts to thank for it, as they were most definitely the catalyst.

4. My value system started changing for the better.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe I’ve only been working out for just shy of three years. It’s not just about the positive changes to my physique and my brain function, either. It’s the way I hardly recognise myself in the person who could barely haul herself out of bed and onto a stationary bike that first day.

That person was always looking for the easy way around any challenge — the shortcut. I thought people who believed in working hard for what they wanted in life were wasting their time because there were so many shortcuts you could take instead. Why go to the trouble of properly dressing and repairing a wound if slapping a Band-Aid on it would suffice? Why address your depression with actual solutions when you can just slam a few drinks instead and feel better that way? This is no longer how I think.

Something about exercising all the time and staying so consistent with it for so long is rewiring my personality. I am unsure whether it’s the chemical changes the exercise causes, the fact that I no longer abuse alcohol, or the result of what’s come to be a very positive routine. (Maybe all of the above.) It’s a very good thing, though.

I no longer try to cheat the system by finding the quick way around. I take pride in doing things properly, thoroughly, and correctly because the results really are that much better. I make the choices I do because they’re honest, commendable, and right-minded, and I’ve learned to see the world around me and the people in it with fresh eyes. I’m more grateful than I used to be, not to mention more generous with my time and the things that I know, as well.

5. My confidence went through the roof.

I’ve struggled with a lot in life, including the questions of whether or not there was a point to being alive and whether human relationships are worth the effort they require. I’ve never had a self-esteem problem, though. I was considered extremely gifted as a child, so I grew up hearing a lot about how smart and talented I was, and I believed every word of it. Eventually, I grew into my looks a little, so from that point on, I also had people telling me I was pretty all the time — a recipe for disaster.

I fully realised that those things gave me worth by society standards, and I had zero humility about any of it. And I thought that’s what confidence was — feeling like you’re the sh*t because you look good and know a few things. When I couldn’t manage to build a good life for myself despite allegedly having everything going for me that I was supposed to, I wondered why.

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I didn’t realise life is actually a lot more complicated than that, so I felt like a fraud and a profound failure most of the time. Then I didn’t understand where those feelings were coming from, mostly because I didn’t realise cockiness and confidence aren’t the same. Anyone can feel cocky if they have a few things going for them and have people burying them up to their neck in compliments for no good reason. True confidence only comes with substance.

What good is intelligence that you misuse or waste entirely by never using it at all? What is the benefit of good looks that draw people to you if you treat them like crap once you’ve got their attention? The more actual substance of character I developed, the more confident I became. I no longer lived with this suspicion that I was secretly empty inside because I knew for a fact that wasn’t the case. However, those changes only began when I made up my mind to start taking care of myself.

At this point, I’m astonished by the sheer number of ways getting fit and taking care of my health have made my life better over the past three years. And that’s just three years. Where will I be after 10 years of living like this... or 20? I couldn’t tell you, but I can absolutely say that I’m excited to find out.

I’m still not sure I’d say exercise is a panacea that can solve literally all of your problems. Still, it definitely comes closer than anything else I can point to. It certainly makes just about anything you’re struggling with easier to figure out and get under control.

So, if you’ve been on the fence about making a similar change, I hope some of what I’ve said here can serve as the inspiration you need to get started. It won’t always be easy, but trust me when I say a healthy life well-lived is worth it.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished here with full permission. 

Shannon Hilson is a full-time professional writer from Monterey, California. She lives a quiet, creative life with her husband who is a movie producer and composer. When she’s not either writing or reading, she loves cooking and studying foreign languages. You can read more from her here and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: Getty.

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