Skip to main content
phys ed

Over the last few years there’s been a subtle yet powerful paradigm shift within the fitness industry. Sure, the marketing machine still promotes the same old nonsense about abs and aesthetics, but pay attention and you’ll see signs of something else – the idea that fitness can be a form of self-care and self-compassion.

I had to learn this the hard way. Leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, my own mental health was a mess. The slow creep of dementia had finally stolen my mother for good; my family and I were left to pick up the pieces of our shared and shattered lives as best we could, though as anyone who has experienced this sort of pain can attest, there really is no return to normalcy. You just adapt to a weird new world inhabited by ghosts.

As a fitness professional, I figured I knew exactly how to handle all of this distress. I was exercising in the gym nearly every day before the world shut down, pushing myself as hard as I could as often as I could. It wasn’t until most of my hair fell out that I began to question this approach. Soon after, I started seeing a therapist who taught me just how our brains benefit from exercise – as long as you do it right.

The most helpful advice I was offered is to think of exercise as a form of medicine. And when it comes to medication, the minimal effective dose is usually enough. We don’t need to “unleash the beast” every time we step foot in the gym. In fact, a recent study has shown that positive health benefits can be achieved with just 11 minutes of daily exercise. Here are some of those insights, along with a few practical tips that can be applied to your own training.

Action overcomes anxiety

Our bodies are meant to move. We already know that a sedentary lifestyle sets us up for a whole host of chronic diseases and conditions (heart disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes to name just a few); what most people don’t realize is that sedentary people are twice as likely to suffer from depression too.

So while it might feel comforting at first, when we’re stressed, anxious or depressed, the worst thing we can do is hide out in bed. Regardless of the event that sparked these feelings, it’s our brains that pull us into the quagmire and keep us weighed down. Wallowing in isolation only makes a bad situation worse.

As someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, I don’t say these things flippantly. I know how hard it can be to prioritize physical activity when it feels like your whole world is on fire, but in situations like this, movement really is the best medicine. This is why I aim for 10,000 steps every day; it’s not for “the cardio” or to burn calories, but to maintain my mental well-being.

What’s your motivation?

Wanting to make a change in your life is a noble endeavour, or at least it can be if you’re motivated by the right reason. What’s the right reason? Why it’s love, of course. Love for yourself, naturally, but also for the person you wish to become.

The wrong reason should be obvious. Call it hatred, call it self-loathing, call it “high standards” – however you choose to dress it up, a negative motivator often only compounds our insecurities and can turn what should be a joyful experience into a burdensome duty.

Who do you think has a better chance of accomplishing their goals? The person motivated by self-love, or the one motivated by self-loathing? More importantly, which of these people do you think will actually savour that win?

Resiliency is the reason

All personal trainers can rhyme off a list of reasons why resistance training is so important. Yes, lifting weights can help to build muscle mass, and muscle mass is essential for healthy aging. But to me, the most important reason for pumping iron is that it builds something much more immediate and empowering: resilience.

Resilience is one of the most rare and valuable qualities. It’s the ability to withstand hardship, to maintain composure under duress, to bounce back from adversity and ask for more, please. What we’re talking about here is mental toughness, and if you ask me there is no better arena for developing this quality than the gym.

Deadlifts and squats; loaded carries and sled pushes; hill sprints and high-intensity interval training – these exercises are all staples of the best training programs not only because they build brawn, but because they reveal just how tough we really are. There’s a sense of empowerment that comes from knowing you can count on your body in nearly any situation. To borrow a phrase from punk rock renaissance man Henry Rollins, iron truly is the best antidepressant.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

Sign up for the weekly Health & Wellness newsletter for the latest news and advice.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe