As a mental health blogger, I’ve talked about a lot of coping mechanisms over the years. Some are more effective that others but everyone is different. Self care has become one of the more popular coping strategies lately. People have started to realize the importance of taking care of their mental health along with their physical health. Which is good progress, in my opinion.
Self care can take a plethora of forms. Journaling, bubble baths, and massages spring to mind immediately. However, some forms of self care can be costly and this can be a barrier for some folks.
Fret not, reader! In my quest to help as many people as I can, I have put together a series of blog posts that I’m calling, “Self care is for everyone.” In this series, I will be talking about various self care activites that are proven to improve mental health and general wellbeing. I hope my tips and expertise will inspire you to do better for you. Because I love you.
The first topic on the list is exercise.
If you are anything like me, you have an issue with exercising. The desire to move my body for anything other than required activities had never appealed to me. It was icky to think about; just flat-out unpleasant. I have come up with a myriad of excuses for why I don’t need to bother with it.
“I don’t have time to exercise.”
“I can’t afford a gym membership”
“It hurts. Why should I bother?”
“I don’t want to.”
Overcoming your own resistance in a large chunk of the battle. We all know that regular exercise is good for you. It can reduce stress, help with controlling weight gain, combat aging, and improve your mood. So, why are we, as humans, adamantly against doing the work to improve ourselves?
We have all done this to ourselves. We put off things we don’t want to do until we can’t anymore. The doctor might deliver some unpleasant news about a chronic condition looming. A friend posts a picture of you on their socials and you are appalled to discover a gargoyle standing where you were supposed to be in the photo. Something as simple as you not liking the way you look in a swimsuit anymore. (If you ever did in the first place.) could kick start your fitness journey.
It was the diabetes and high blood pressure for me.
Both conditions run deep in my bloodline. Every woman in my maternal lineage developed diabetes at one point or another in their lives. I inherited the potential for heart disease from my father’s side. Toss a dollop of high blood pressure from both parents on top and you have the recipe for a potential medical disaster.
I’m not getting any younger either. If I could figure that out, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Chronic illness loves to creep into the spaces that youth leaves open as it disappears. I, for one, was not about that life.
This influenced my decision to have gastric sleeve surgery. Not the desire to be thinner, but the desire to live longer and have a better quality of life. The process was grueling and did alter my life in a variety of positive ways. I talk about the early stages of that journey in my book. You can read about my trials to help guide your decision-making with that. However, this essay is about exercise.
They tell you that weight loss surgery is only a tool to assist with weight loss, not the end goal. I have to remind myself of that all the time. Especially now, then the weight has stopped magically falling off. If I want to see changes, I have to work for it.
Story of my life.
The biggest issue with me was finding an activity that I could live with. An exercise that I wanted to do regularly. I tried what was popular with the internet kids, mostly running and jogging. I took regular trips to the gym and spent countless hours on the treadmill. I trained a few times a week and I did manage to complete a 5K in September of 2019. That went well but the beginning of my jogging life was not great.
I made the initial mistake of throwing myself in too hard in the beginning. I would just start walking and I would walk for an hour or more. I would feel good about the distance I could manage but I would feel like trash the next day. My muscles would hurt, and I was very sore. Needless to say, running was not working out long term. I needed to find something I was going to do without feeling like I was obligated to it.
I was always flexible. Stretching was never an issue for me. I could do splits and cartwheels easily as a kid. That carried over into adulthood and I love getting the kinks out of my muscles and joints. I had always wanted to try yoga, but I didn’t think my body was appropriate. Being overweight meant that I didn’t look like the people I always saw bending themselves into amazing poses.
The thing I’ve learned is that yoga works for everyone with a body. Do you have a body? Then you can make it work. I didn’t have to look like the rail-thin yogis I saw on Instagram and YouTube. Most, if not all of the poses I’ve encountered have an adapted version that would work. Can’t touch your toes? Yoga straps and blocks can help with flexibility issues. Sitting on the floor too uncomfortable? You can use pillows and blankets for a more restorative practice. Inversion sounds impossible for you? Some supports and adaptations can make it accessible. Yoga is flexible enough (get it?) for everyone.
There have been some issues in the news of certain states outlawing yoga in schools because they decided that yoga was a religious practice. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yoga is practiced by all types of people isn’t tied to any specific religion. Yoga is often related to Eastern mindfulness practices. This is not a religious thing. Mindfulness and Meditation can also become part of your yoga practice. Meditation is an effective strategy to reduce stress because it forces you to focus on the current moment and to put other concerns aside.
The breathing exercises can create a focal point while you pose. Yoga relies on breathing through the exercises. You can’t pose comfortably if you are holding your breath. You can also use your breathing as a pacing guide for moving through a yoga flow. It helps to synchronize the breathing and movement into fluid motions that feel good to your body.
Another benefit of a consistent yoga practice is the increased flexibility and strength it can provide. Stretching and working the muscles increases blood flow that may not have been moving through the body as easily as it should. Yoga can also help to decrease inflammation in the body. This eases the symptoms of arthritis as well as high blood pressure.
My experiences with yoga started with a dollar store mat and a YouTube video. I mimicked the poses as best as I could but didn’t breathe right. By the time the first video was over, I was exhausted, sweaty, and out of breath. I was lying on my floor on a heap but I didn’t feel awful. My legs felt good like I’d been walking for a while. I decided to try again.
I kept trying again on and off for a few years. My practice wasn’t as consistent for several reasons but whenever I fell off the wagon, I felt bad about it. I had managed to find an exercise that I wanted to do. I enjoyed bending and flexing. I could tell that I had gotten stronger when the poses became easier to hold for long amounts of time. The day I first managed to get the bow pose right, I felt unstoppable.
My yoga practice also allowed me to clear my head when the anxiety and depression were screaming for attention. The mindful movements and thinking were a valuable distraction from the unpleasant messages that my brain was throwing at me. I tended to have a sense of peace after a good flow.
I would encourage anyone to give yoga a shot. Start with some simple stretches. If you can’t touch your toes, make that a short-term goal. The only thing someone needs to start yoga is some space and some time. A mat and other accessories can come in later when you are more comfortable, but you only need your body to start.
I’ll see you on the floor!