You’ve heard it before, seen it printed on athletic wear, and maybe even said it yourself, “exercise is my therapy.”
Now, don’t get me wrong—I am the world’s biggest cheerleader when it comes to moving our body in the ways that we enjoy, but movement and exercise is not, nor is it ever meant to be, a replacement for any other essential need in our lives.
First, why does this phrase get used? For some people, exercise is a place to open their mind.
Whether they exchange conversation with a group, a friend, a trainer, or others and have a chance to express what is on their mind in a different environment than the stressors of life, they often walk away with a refreshed or different outlook than when they walked in the door.
These people are not trained mental health professionals, but rather just engaged in conversation and provided a listening ear and a place to vent and express thought.
Second, movement changes us physically. The oxygen supply in our body is increased, and with greater oxygen flowing through the blood vessels of the brain, cognitive and executive function are improved, so you feel more engaged, have better memory, and self-control is better regulated.
There are several neurotransmitters that are released like endorphins, endocannabinoids (aka: runner’s high), and dopamine, etc. There’s also a shift in hormone levels as well.
There are many other reasons why people will use this phrase regarding movement, but let’s look at why this can be problematic:
Your group/friend/trainer/etc. is (usually) not a qualified and/or licensed mental health professional. Most of the time, a chat among friends is all that we need, but if we are dependent upon this relationship to cope with life beyond situational circumstances, we might need to consider looking elsewhere for support.
Exercise can become addictive. Do you find yourself when things get stressful or difficult escaping to the gym, a class, a sports game, or other activity?
Movement is not a replacement for dealing with what might be happening in life, and can create greater detriment to your relationships, health, and other situations if not monitored.
All said, exercise can be therapeutic—but not meant to replace therapy or another form of mental health care if appropriate for your needs.
It’s important to always look at your motive for exercise.
Why are you there? Is it an escape from life more often than another goal of movement?
Have you become dependent on the institution/people for comfort rather than dealing with what’s happening in life?
Are there things that you might benefit from some perspective and support on working through?
Somewhere the stigma got attached to mental health care that if you seek out counseling or therapy that you automatically are going to be stamped with a diagnosis. Not true.
Sometimes people just need a place to talk things out from time to time in a safe and confident environment. No one is out to label you.
As you work with a professional, you can see that movement works in balance with all other parts of life.
The therapeutic part of exercise—those physical benefits mentioned above—along with meeting your individual goals fuel progress and creates momentum to keep healthy habits going and create positive outcomes that last a lifetime.
If you feel like it might be time to look at having a conversation with someone and don’t know where to turn for trusted mental health care, contact NAMI at 1-800-950-6264 or nami.org.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, you can text or call 988 for support, call 911, or go to your nearest emergency room.
Stephanie Lueras is a body-positive certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist and owner of Heart and Sole Fitness in Lake Havasu City. For information, visit heartandsolefit.com.