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The Stress-Relieving Life-Affirming Power of Exercise

10 Reasons Why Exercise is the Answer to Almost Everything

With each day’s exercise—whether it’s rhythmic indoor rowing sessions, long walks, or weight training supersets—I uncover new facets to my deepening belief that the answer to most problems, stressors, and negative states of mind (and body) is EXERCISE. The stress-relieving life-affirming power of exercise is real. This may not seem revolutionary to those of you who have made exercise a consistent life habit, but for a woman in her 50s who has been fickle and noncommittal with workouts, this is an extraordinary discovery. I’m also convinced that nearly every time I feel like exercise is the last thing I want to do, I can be assured that I am most in need of its power and positive influence.

Commit and Recommit Yourself to Exercise and the Rewards Pile On

I’ve committed (and recommitted) myself to exercise, and it has rewarded me many times over with a fitter body, better balance, self-confidence and a more positive mental outlook. Overweight for most of my life, discovering this new love for exercise has been my greatest ally in helping me lose weight and reduce menopause symptoms (heart palpitations and hot flashes).

Perhaps you’re still on the fence in your commitment to exercise and struggling to see its power past the popular notions of its use for weight loss and a “toned” body. Maybe you have committed to exercising but don’t want to do it today? I’m about to make a case that you do it anyway, whether you feel like it or not. More than that, I think that if you’ve had a stressful, emotional, tiring day, if you’re in a state of “yuck” or going through a period of angst and trouble, exercise is the answer for you too.

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Top 10 Reasons Why Exercise is the Answer to Almost Everything

Here’s my top 10 list of ways exercise is the answer to life’s piled-on problems. We may not solve world peace here, but we can build peace of mind, one workout at a time, and that’s a powerful, beautiful thing!

  1. Feeling fat and fluffy (and hating it)?

Exercise. It’s no surprise that exercise can help reduce fat. While it helps burn some calories, I like to focus on its ability to create lean muscle. Cardio is important for heart health, but strength training (particularly for women over 40) is critical to building muscle and reducing body fat. Exercise is a wonderful ally (along with maintaining a caloric deficit through healthy eating) when you want to lose weight, but weight training is where it’s at to reduce fat.

  1. Have strong, negative emotions taken over (and you don’t know where to turn)?

Exercise. Exercise can convert strong emotions like anger, sadness, and anxiety into a catalyst for powerful, energetic body movements. The act of pushing and pulling heavy weights, for example, takes you out of your head and moves you into your body. At the same time, the physical work helps release emotion, putting your aggression and extra energy into a positive task. One thing that keeps me returning to weight training, especially using large muscle groups in exercises like a leg press, is that full-body pushing and effort give me a physical outlet to release my emotions. With every push, my mind fights back, and on some level, I’m able to push back against strong negative emotions. I realize my power and spread that realization to my emotional life.

  1. Have a teenager, significant other or family member who’s driving you crazy?

Exercise. When parenting or family life has me all wound up and not knowing what to think or where to turn, I get moving. Exercise is terrific at taking you out of moments of conflict and defusing them by offering a positive break from overthinking. It’s impossible to ruminate about disputes when you are exerting total effort at the gym. Here, you may have to do a more taxing workout than a short cardio stint on the elliptical machine. You’ll need full-body, sweat-making exercise—think walking lunges, the stairmill or a series of weight training circuits. Push yourself at the gym for an hour or so, and you’ll forget your family troubles long enough to gain perspective (and remind yourself that you are worthy of self-care and attention too).

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  1. Feeling burnout at your job?

Exercise. When you feel like a mindless drone, need a break from multi-tasking or are starting to wonder if your work is worth all the stress and headache, head to the gym or your local park and mix things up. Take yourself out of your current environment and realize that you are more than your work. It may not fix what’s going on at the job, but it reminds you of your personhood. You can see what you’re made of when your work through a few sets of taxing deadlifts. Then, you remember that you have a soul, passions, and worth beyond your job title. You are more than the worker you identify with on the job, and exercise can feed your soul in ways that reaffirm your passion for other areas of your life.

  1. Having trouble sleeping?

Exercise (but not too close to bedtime). Many people exercise first thing in the morning, but I’ve found that working out after work but before dinner is a helpful transition from work to family/personal time and sets me up for a good night’s sleep. After a good workout sometime between 5:00 pm-7:30 pm, I’m ready for dinner and then a release of energy as I relax for the night. By 9:00 pm, my body starts to wind down. My muscles have had time to release and relax from the workout, and I sleep more soundly. Sound sleep during menopause is a beautiful thing.

  1. Feeling tired or in a general state of malaise?

Exercise. The best antidote to fatigue (not caused by a medical condition) is exercise. The fatigue after a day at work is mainly mental fatigue that has co-opted your body. Once you start moving (sometimes I start my workouts yawning), your body wakes up and takes over. Your mental state becomes secondary, and your body gets a chance to do what it was designed to do—move. Within 10-15 minutes, I usually feel energetic and wide awake. Once my workout is done, I’m relaxed and ready to close the books on “work” for the day.

  1. Have mild muscle pain or soreness?

Exercise (but make it gentle exercise). Try some slow stretching or work muscles that are rested and not sore and painful to give your overworked muscles a break. As I get older, I have more aches and pains and tend to get sore if I overdo it at the gym. However, this doesn’t mean that my whole body is hurting. For example, if my hips occasionally ache a bit (and my tendency to experience sciatica nerve pain flares up), I take a few days off from weighted, walking lounges and the stairmill and work my upper body using one of my favorite machines: the cable machine. I’m lucky that my favorite cardio exercise is indoor rowing, which is gentle on my joints, works my large, muscular thigh muscles well and offers a full-body, pain-free workout.

  1. Need to focus on taking care of your own wellbeing?

Exercise. I have a love/hate relationship with the word self-care. To the core of my being, I believe that self-care is essential for everyone, especially overworked women. But the pastel-colored marketing messages of self-care that I see on Instagram—you know, the posts with the little cartoon pictures of cups of tea, baths and open books—over simplifies self-care. Self-care is broader than that. It’s more about a state of mind to me than one pleasurable activity. Exercise is my near-daily commitment to self-care. It creates a space for my needs, my agenda and my mind/body connection. So how do I take good care of myself? Heart pumping, sweat-building exercise—with no pastel colors in my line of sight!

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  1. Need time for self-reflection and problem-solving?

Exercise. How can you think about yourself and your needs, give space to your thoughts and reflect on problems without consciously doing it? Do it during your exercise sessions! Exercise works my body while giving my mind a much-needed break from thinking. I tend to ruminate about problems, running through the same old tapes until I’m exhausted. When I exercise, I turn off that part of my brain and let my body take over. Of course, I’m still processing my thoughts, but I’m putting space between my problems and possible solutions.

  1. Feeling bored or lonely?

Exercise. Long walks are my antidote to boredom. There’s nothing better than exploring nature during a walk to wake up your senses and give your mind something new and unexpected to think about. Your body moves in that natural, gentle way it was supposed to and you feel at peace. It’s hard to feel bored or lonely when you’re content.

Outdoor exercise—walks in the park, runs along the beach, hiking or biking through mountains— connects our bodies to movement steeped in powerful sensory experiences. We were meant to use our senses: seeing the beauty of the natural world or smelling nature’s perfumes as we move through novel, scenic journeys.

3 Times When You Shouldn’t Exercise

  1. To punish yourself for eating high-calorie foods or solely to burn calories.

Just don’t do it. If exercise is a punishment, you have lost your way. You’re also at risk of losing your most powerful ally in the fight for mental health, physical wellbeing, spiritual and social connection. Exercise is too valuable to be viewed solely through a calorie-burning lens. Exercise because you can. Exercise because it gives you life and energy (and health). If you’ve overeaten, deal with it. Recognize what it means to you and your goals and move on, but don’t pair it with exercise as a way to negate your calorie count or punish yourself.

  1. When you are sick or in real physical pain.

Just don’t do it. Listening to your body is critical to maintaining a long, happy relationship with exercise. I wholeheartedly believe in cross-training to reduce injury, but sometimes we can overdo things. Listen to your body when it tells you it needs a rest (e.g., dreading workouts, too sore to use good form, exhausted after a reasonable amount of sleep). Also, I’m not a medical professional, so always talk to your doctor before starting your exercise plan (and definitely if you have any pain while exercising) to make sure your workouts are sound and suited to your body.

  1. When you’re having too much fun to stop, interrupt what you are doing, and exercise.

Just don’t do it. If you are living a full life in this moment and exercise doesn’t fit into the day’s activities, continue with your joyful state. If you are having more fun than you’ve had in weeks, don’t stop that to exercise. As great as exercise has been for me (and yes, I’m officially a gym rat now), there is more to life than exercise. Enjoy your life! Exercise will always be there when you are ready to return to it.

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