HOW WORKING OUT IMPROVED MY MENTAL HEALTH IN 5 WAYS
Small Improvements That Made a Major Impact
About a year and a half ago, before I started my current position, I had to see my physician for a routine physical as part of the hiring process. During the checkup, my doctor asked about my stress levels, in relation to the health crisis, I went through in the two years prior, and whether or not the episodes of anxiety I had been having had decreased. Unfortunately, with all the stress surrounding that time in my life, things were heading back downhill again, and I was honest with her about it. Her advice to me at the time was simple and gentle, “You might want to consider doing some physical exercise to help with that.” Of course, I nodded in agreement with her advice because I knew it was true — after all, I preach it endlessly to anyone who asks what will help them with stress and the ups and downs of life. But I had fallen into a funk of emotional eating and wallowing in my unfortunate circumstances and plenty of other unhealthy habits that weren’t doing anything good for me in the short- or long-term. I didn’t really feel inclined toward working out or seeing things get better, in general. I was deep in that funk.
Fast forward to a few months later, I had come into some newfound stress at my current position and it finally clicked in my head that I needed to make a positive change in my life. If you know me, you know that I mull over a decision or a change in my life for a LONG time before I make a decision. Seriously. Don’t ever go shopping with me, especially for shoes! I’m a creature of (bad) habit(s) and introducing major changes like this don’t just happen — until they do. I literally decided one afternoon that I was going to join the gym the next day.I went shopping for workout clothes that evening and, low and behold, January was the perfect time to do that because the clothes were all hijab-friendly. And I told myself that if God wanted this to happen, He would make that known by making it easy for me to find workout clothes, otherwise, I would change my mind. But I went home with bags full of gym gear and went to bed with the intention of going to the gym first thing in the morning. And that’s what I did.
It’s been a little over a year of working out semi-consistently — old habits die hard and I don’t always make good choices, but I’ve noticed so many positive changes it has had on my life that aren’t only about how I look. People also often ask me what makes me keep working out even though it’s still not the most appealing choice (for me, personally — I’d still prefer to wallow in a Portillo’s Italian Beef and cheese fries any day of the week). So, I decided to share some of the improvements to my mental health that have come from consistent physical exercise — some that I didn’t even expect and have been a pleasant surprise too.
My insomnia episodes have decreased and I’m sleeping better
Before I started working out, I had the worst insomnia for years! It would come and go for weeks or months at a time and was impacting my functioning in so many ways. Besides finding myself fatigued at all times of the day, I was frustrated and irritable all the time, I was over-caffeinating to stay awake during the day, I couldn’t focus and I was just miserable more of the time than I wanted to be. Not that anyone wants to be miserable, but that don’t-talk-to-me morning feeling is usually supposed to wear off by midday and that didn’t used to happen for me. Working out changed that for me. Having a place to pour out my negative energy and process my thoughts after work a few times a week made for more restful nights, both physically and mentally, even on the nights I don’t work out.
I get at least two hours of dedicated me-time
I’ve found that going to a gym to work out is the perfect neutral territory for stress relief. The two environments that bring me the most stress are work, where I’m in a building with around 800 people and any number of crises could break out at any time, and anywhere I’m with my family — enough said. So, I needed to find a place to get physically and mentally away from both of those settings. Thus, I found a nice, big gym where I can spend quality time with just me and the most beautiful part of it is that I don’t hear my name endlessly called from every imaginable corner as I do at home and at work. It is the closest to blissful solitude I ever really get and I’ll take it. Headphones on. World off. Perfection.
I’ve been eating better and drinking more water
So, as I alluded to earlier, I have a lot of bad habits. Bad eating habits, to be more specific. I am a junk food addict. But ever since I’ve been working out, I’ve had to watch what I put into my body because it is so true when they say you feel the impact and the difference it makes to be eating things that are good for you rather than the bad. I actually got to a point of feeling ill when I would eat unhealthy or junk foods, so that motivates me to eat much better than before. Of course, I indulge every now and then, but overall, my eating habits have gotten much better and I’m incorporating more water into my day to stay hydrated prior to my workouts. And when you don’t feel as weighed down by bad things you’re eating, it makes you feel better overall.
I handle stress in better ways than before
I can go on forever about all the negative impacts I experienced when I wasn’t dealing with stress like I should have been, but in general, it just made my energy negative and I didn’t want to feel that way anymore. By working off the stress of each day, I have been able to rid myself of undue tension rather than allowing it to build up and overwhelm me to the point of a breakdown like it used to. I’m able to keep my cool through difficult situations or under a time crunch on a deadline better than I have in a long time. A little bit goes a long way is definitely applicable here. Combine the hour or two I get to myself with the relief I feel after sweating off the negativity of the day, and I feel much more prepared to face the next day and whatever comes with it than I ever used to.
I’m more focused and productive
Because of the time management it takes to keep a routine that incorporates getting all the sh*t done that is asked of me on a daily basis AND making sure I am eating right AND making sure I have time to work out AND get enough sleep at night AND keep my head on straight while doing all of that, adding gym time to my life has actually made me more productive and focused overall. Since I’m sleeping and eating better now, my mind is working better too. I’m able to focus when and where I need to and that general, all-over-the-place feeling doesn’t take over as often as it used to. And feeling ‘in control’ of my mind, body, and emotions is definitely a mental health improvement I need in my life right now.
My spider veins don’t hurt anymore
Okay, so this is a physical thing, but hear me out. I have these spider veins on my legs that would keep me up at night with pain compared to the only other pain that wakes me up from my sleep — cramps. I tried so many things to get relief, but nothing worked. I was beginning to wonder if I should consider a medical procedure to help with the pain. And then after working out for a few months, it dawned on me that I hadn’t felt that pain my legs for quite some time. And even though it’s the physical symptoms that have subsided, it brings me so much mental and emotional relief to not have to deal with sleepless nights and the looming thought of having some kind of surgical or non-surgical procedure done.
Bonus: Feeling more confident overall
This could definitely be because I’m happier with the way my body looks and feels, but there’s also this sense of pride that develops by seeing your body improve in agility, endurance, and strength. And when you’ve pushed out previous feelings of anxiety, stress, fatigue, dread, worry, uneasiness — just overall physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, you have more energy to embrace positive feelings. Regardless of what you look like on the outside, if you feel good on the inside, it shows. It radiates. And you glow differently. That’s inner confidence like no other. And you protect that feeling from all negative elements — internal or external — like your life depends on it. Because it does.