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The Workout Prescription

An exercise habit can alleviate anxiety and depression
By Cary and Tonja Rector


You just can’t go wrong with exercising and emotional health. Several times each week we talk with our clients about the importance of the habit of exercise.

Research clearly demonstrates aerobic exercise is helpful in treating anxiety and depression. It also helps reduce stress and maintain overall emotional health. People experiencing anxiety quickly feel symptom reduction once they start exercising. Those feeling depressed have low energy and find it hard to begin an activity, which makes developing the exercise habit more difficult. The benefits make it well worth pursuing.

Here are some techniques to make starting an exercise habit easier.

Start small. Make small changes you can sustain over years, not weeks. Build these changes into your lifestyle—such as taking a walk after dinner, climbing the stairs whenever possible, parking farther away so you have to walk a bit to get to work or the store. All you need to get started is 20 minutes a day. Build it into your life’s routines.

All-or-nothing thinking is your nemesis. Beware of labeling things black and white, good or bad, all or none. The mentality that only a killer workout is worth doing will do you in: “I only have time for a 10-minute walk before work today. It’s not worth it, I’ll start exercising tomorrow.” Something is always better than nothing.

Just do it. Don’t wait to get in the mood to exercise. Just go through the motions of getting to the gym and don’t overthink it. Once you get started you may find you are not so tired after all.

Don’t exercise just to lose weight. Developing the aerobic exercise habit is something you do to take care of yourself. You are developing a new lifestyle that has all kinds of benefits, which may include the side effect of losing weight. Less stress, better emotional health and the overall good feeling that accompanies regular exercise are the real goals.

Use community supports and resources. The East Area Family YMCA in Fayetteville is near our office and a convenient place for us to exercise, so we are familiar with what it offers. It’s a beautiful facility with an incredible number of programs available for all ages. The environment is welcoming and friendly with a staff culture of positive support. The Central New York area also provides several parks and walking trails easily accessed for both summer and winter exercise. Onondaga Lake Park and Green Lakes State Park are two great resources.

Keep it simple. You don’t need to invest in expensive exercise equipment. Walking only requires a comfortable pair of shoes. If you prefer to use equipment, consider joining the YMCA or a local gym. These facilities have hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment at your disposal. The YMCA has a sliding scale and scholarships for people whose income might be a barrier to better health.

Go back to an activity you used to enjoy and invite a friend. Returning to an activity you liked in the past is a great way to introduce exercise into your daily life. Having a workout buddy makes exercise more fun and provides support and encouragement. Knowing someone is planning to meet you for an activity makes it harder to skip out.

Set a goal or learn something new. Some people do better if they have a specific goal they are working toward. Sign up for a charity walk or run. Learn to swim, master a new yoga position or take on your first triathlon. But remember, reaching the goal is a way for you to establish and continue your new habit, not a time to retire!

Research indicates good or bad habits can be contagious. Think of setting a good example for your family group. Limiting your child’s “electronic time” is a way to encourage more physical activity.

Think positive. You build on positives, not negatives. Worry and negative thinking are a waste of your psychological energy. Work to put a stop to it by substituting positive, encouraging thoughts. Every small change you make gets you closer to better emotional health.

It takes 21 days to develop a new habit. Why not take the next 21 days and invest in your emotional health? If you find a small change your can incorporate into your daily life and build from there, you can’t go wrong.