“Exercise – a more powerful drug cannot be prescribed.”
I honestly would not have survived these last three years without exercise and working out. It has been one of my most loyal allies, getting me through the days that I had no choice but to just get through.
It was while running, three months after my wife’s death, that I found my first glimmer of hope that life could, indeed, go on – maybe even with joy again. It was in the weight room at 5:30 a.m., even on the mornings after a sleepless night, where I found the strength to get through the next day, or the next task, or the next hour. It was running at midnight – to clear my head, to avoid a meltdown, or because I didn’t know what else to do – that I avoided making many a situation worse. Sometimes I just needed to run away for a bit. Often times the only benefit was just being too tired to worry about things until the next day. In fact, physical exhaustion from working out was often times the only way I could experience any sleep at all, in the early stages of grief.
I also believe exercise is what prevented me from slipping into chronic depression. The blues are a normal part of the grieving process, but my daily dose of natural endorphins are what staved off a trip to the doctor’s for anti-depressants.
Exercise combats depression by enhancing our natural endorphins, chemicals that act like morphine and other painkillers. There’s also a theory that aerobic activity boosts norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood. And exercise helps the brain grow new neurons. I didn’t know this at the time I was grieving; I just knew it made me feel better.
We are triumvirate beings – body, mind and spirit must all be cared for. The body is often forgotten in times of grief and depression, but it can carry us through the lows if given the proper opportunity. The body has wonderful rejuvenative capabilities, and often times it can lead the mind and spirit to follow.
Life isn’t always easy, loss and stress can overwhelm. Not doing anything about it can lead to chronic depression and loss of will. Regular exercise can lead you back. Yes it takes effort, you may not feel like it, especially at first, but stick with it, develop a routine. Just Do It, to quote Nike.
You needn’t get bogged down with the details… simply get moving. Any activity that appeals to you is worth it – hiking, swimming, yoga, group classes, dancing, bicycling… whatever will get you moving is great. Once you have begun to heal, however, I recommend incorporating the following types of exercise into your program in order to truly optimize your results:
1. Avoid Sitting for More Than 15 Minutes. I usually set a timer for 15 minutes or so while sitting, and then stand up and do one-legged squats, jump squats or lunges when the timer goes off. The key is that you need to be moving all day long, even in non-exercise, or as I now like to call them, intermittent movement activities.
2. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): Compelling and ever-mounting research shows that the ideal form of exercise is short bursts of high-intensity exercise that I call Peak Fitness. Not only does it beat conventional cardio as the most effective and efficient form of exercise, it also provides health benefits you simply cannot get from regular aerobics, such as a tremendous boost in human growth hormone (HGH), aka the “fitness hormone.”
3.Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen, and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury, and help you gain greater balance and stability.
4. Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body’s natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.
5. Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a one-set strength training routine will ensure that you’re really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You can also “up” the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff.