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Exercise As a Coping Skill?

"But Christina, I hate running! It's so hard and my lungs hurt, and my legs hurt and I just can't do it! I'm just not cut out to be a runner!"

Sound familiar? This was actually me at one point in my life. I remember being in the Navy and only running twice a year - during our semi annual physical fitness test. Thinking back on it now, I must have been crazy to think I would get good scores just doing the bare minimum. Not to mention, I was also a smoker at the time so my lung capacity was very minimal. Every time I would run that mile and a half I would be huffing and puffing, struggling to get a time that would allow me to pass at the bare minimum score. I hated running, and I swore that once I got out of the military I would never run again.

Then something happened after I got home from active duty. About 6 months after separating, I realized that I had been dealing with some major adjustment issues being a civilian, and had started developing some symptoms of depression and anxiety. These were causing me to develop not the best coping mechanisms, including drinking alcohol and eating my feelings. Before I knew it, I was about 30 pounds overweight and just felt awful. I had no energy to get me through the day, and just going up the stairs to get home was taxing on my lungs.I wasn't happy with where my life was heading, even though I was doing well at work and school. I knew my health was affecting my mental health, and if I didn't get a hold of it soon then I would just continue to feel miserable all the time.

So I finally decided to do something about it. I signed up for my firs 5k and researched training plans to help me get there. I also decided to quit smoking, as I needed healthier lungs if I was going to be successful at this race. I signed up for a gym membership and started going every week day, doing cardio on the elliptical for three days a week and pilates classes for two days a week. I started running pretty slow, beginning with a 1 mile run/walk and working my way up to a 3 mile run/walk. The whole process probably took me about 6 months once I started running. I wanted to badly to be able to run the entire race, so I worked really hard to get to a point where I was only walking a little bit during my training runs. I also incorporated some sprints and other HIIT to help with my pace. Eventually I was able to run the entire 5k without stopping, other than the water stations along the route. I was SO freaking proud of myself!

One thing I also notice about myself when I started exercising on a regular basis was how my mental health started to improve. My anxiety became easier to manage, and I was feeling really good about myself after each workout. Seeing my daily progress and the increase in momentum with each new workout helped boost my confidence in my ability to achieve my goal. And that happened almost instantly. Even more, I found myself wanting to go for a run after a stressful day, and I was able to almost channel my anxiety into productive physical activity! I could process stressful situations during my runs, or use mindfulness to clear the chatter and just focus on the run.The increase in exercise also made me more aware of the foods that I was eating, as food choices often greatly affect the quality of our exercise.

I wanted to keep running. I wanted to see what other races I could challenge myself with. My 5k quickly became a challenge for a 10k. After I completed a 10k, I tried a 15k, a 10 mile race and eventually a half marathon! I was consistently running for about 2 years before I decided to attempt a full marathon. Actually, it was a pretty bad break up that drove me to register, as I figured I would need all of the running to help me get through. I trained for about 3 months and was able to complete the Chicago marathon. Of course this was training after I can consistently been a runner for several years. If you're wanting to train for a marathon and have no running experience, you'e probably looking at a bout a year or two of building up to that.

Since my experiences were so helpful to me, I am often a big advocate of the effects of exercise on our mental health. You don't necessarily have to be a runner to start reaping the benefits either, but you do have to start somewhere. I often recommend establishing a routine (I know, there's that word again) of light to moderate exercise just to get in the habit. Walking, yoga or swimming might be a good start. Once you get a good schedule going, then you can start adding more gradually, until you find a flow that works best for you. What's my secret? I never do the same exercise more than once a week! All of my workouts are focused on different things. If I'm running, I'm switching it up between recovery runs, speed runs and tempo runs. On my non running days, I'm doing crossfit, HIIT or yoga classes. This ensures that I don't get bored with what I'm doing and keep the momentum going. Also, different types of exercise can be scheduled based on your mood. Just want to chill out? Sign up for a yoga class. Joints a little sore? Maybe it's time for a swim. Feeling super energized? Hit the road!

Since there are so many ways to get your exercise on, it's almost impossible to find something you enjoy and know you will want to do over and over again. And on that topic, I often hear people tell me that they hate running and that they often feel out of breath really soon into the run. I always stress that running is something that should be eased into and not started at a full on sprint. If you're winded after a few minutes, you're doing it wrong! Start with a slow jog or power walk and gradually build that pace up to a comfortable jog/run. If you've never run before, you may end up doing a run/walk to build your endurance a bit to get you up to running the entire time. It's okay to take your time with this! You are still getting the same benefits running a 14 minute mile as you would running a 5 minute mile. So be patient with your self and keep trying!

Exercise has been a staple of mine and go to whenever I've been in a funk. Added bonus, I often take one of my dogs running with me. Shandy goes NUTS when she sees me put on that running belt, which always puts a smile on my face. I know I am building a better bond with her every time we hit those trails. Give it a try for yourself and let me know what you think!

As always, Be Well and Wag On!

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