Breathe! The Mental Benefits of Different Types of Exercise

For the first twenty-something years of my life, I was never big into exercise. I’d played lacrosse briefly, danced for several years, followed yoga videos on YouTube every now and again, and went for the occasional morning run (usually out of guilt for eating ‘too many’ carbs the night before). Exercise was never something that was sold to me an activity that was possible to be enjoyable. Instead, I viewed it as punishment.

Welp, a couple of years ago I started exercising regularly to get in shape for my wedding, and that’s when my outlook shifted. I gradually became less intimidated by the gym, eventually branching out and trying different workouts and classes. What amazed me is how varied workout experiences can be in terms of their mental and emotional effects; a run, yoga class, and weightlifting session will each yield different effects on your mind.

Disclaimer that this is purely based on my personal experiences. Different exercises do different things for different people…if it wasn’t that way, then we’d all be doing the same thing or wouldn’t switch things up for variety.

Pilates

Expect to potentially have some sh*t come up – you do a lot of work that involves opening up the hips which is where we store our delightful friend, trauma. The first couple times I went, I cried as I walked home after class – not because I was in physical pain per se, but because I was releasing tension from an area which I’d probably been protectively storing trauma for…years. After a Pilates class, I feel more reflective and proud than I do ‘refreshed’ or buzzing with endorphins, but that doesn’t make it less beneficial.

Cardio

Ah, cardio. I’ve both laughed and teared up while running. It is variably exhilarating. Sometimes I feel like I’m raving, other times I feel like I am literally running away from my problems. You’ll often people say some shit along the lines of ‘I’m going on a run to clear my mind.’ Much like meditation, going for a run doesn’t actually wipe the slate clean. The ‘clearing of the mind’ that people are referring to is more like meditation – your thoughts come up, you recognise them, and as you push through your run/jog/bike ride, you push through those thoughts. Capeesh?

Yoga

Not that all exercise doesn’t require balance or focus, but there is a particular focus on those elements with yoga. Perhaps it’s because an instructor is speaking to you throughout the practice, rather than listening to music in other workouts. It demands mindfulness, balance, and focused breathwork throughout the entire class, in a way that differs to rep-based workouts. It can be strenuous, but in, like, a zen way. For example, with weight-lifting, movements are generally a simple press-and-release. Movements in yoga are continuous and compounded sequences (the word ‘flow’ sound familiar?), thus requiring a more focused attention. It’s kind of like talking to your body.

HIIT

Kind of like a cross between the effects of cardio and weights. The moves tend to be more bodyweight or lighter-weight focused, though still demand our friends focus and breathwork. HIIT’s all well and good – definitely on trend and an ‘effective’ workout, but it’s personally not my favorite. To me, it feels rushed and thus lacking in the mindfulness department. After 15 minutes of HIIT, I can’t wait for the workout to be over and my mind starts going other places.

Weight-lifting

Identify the toughest times of your life. Now, imagine being able to beat the sh*t out of them. I got into weights because once I finally obtained abs (which, by the way, weren’t as life-changing as I thought they’d be), my motivations around exercise changed. I didn’t want to do it for the aesthetics anymore. Instead, I wanted to be strong. Weights require focus, form, and breathing. The feeling of pushing your body to its limits in those last few killer reps is f*cking tough, but simultaneously a means of freeing yourself of any aggression, anger, hurt, stress, whatever it may be that ails ya. With every workout, you  come out stronger – physically and emotionally.

Lo and behold, exercise can be pretty freakin’ life-changing. While my motivations for getting into it were initially to, y’know, look good, the reason I stick with exercise now is for the mental and emotional benefits. I’d always thought my anxiety and depression were here to stay, but as it turns out, activity dramatically lessens them.

Bear in mind that if you find an exercise you really truly enjoy, you probably won’t mind spending 45 min or an hour doing a workout. It doesn’t always have to be an ‘ugh, let’s just get this done and over with’ situation. It doesn’t have to be punishment. It doesn’t have to be obligatory. Find what works for you, dedicate the time, and ‘wow’ yourself with what you’re capable of – that’s self-care.

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