Exercise & Nutrition | How to Manage Darker Days

This is part two of a series on how I manage my anxiety. Read the introductory post and see the rest of the posts here

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my body for as long as I can remember. And it’s rarely been about health.

It’s been more about how my thumb traces a why-so-high number across measuring tape that encircles my waist. More about how I knew I shouldn’t have eaten that extra handful of chips (okay, extra seven handfuls…), but I was stressed–okay?–and it made sense to numb the mind. Besides, I would make up for it by an isolated sweat session (no pre-work, no follow up), because that’s how I’d become the number, percentage, waist-to-hip ratio I always wanted.

That was my idea of health. Unhealthy, I know.

I only knew exercise as a way to guilt myself skinny and nutrition as an avenue of penance for indulgence the day before.

Countless credible sources report that exercise helps ease anxiety (see herehere, & here). Turns out they were right. After a whole lot of trial and error and starting over and over and over…I’m four months into the most sustainable healthy lifestyle I’ve ever had.

HOW?!

Well.

I’ve had to unlearn a whole lot of nonsense and embrace a whole lot of reality. Here are the main lessons that have made this work.

All or Nothing < Always Something

Yesterday, a friend and I stumbled into a conversation over exercise. “How do you even have time to do it?” she asked, incredulous. Good question, K; I am a family of one compared to her family of 6 (including homeschooling and a bazillion other things). She can’t make it to the gym for a daily drowning in sweat, so what’s the point, right?

I feel that. However…

This article by Precision Nutrition has literally changed my life (thanks personal trainer pal; you the real MVP).

The key point is to change from an all or nothing mindset to an always something mindset: always do something for your health. Choose a healthier dinner option. Take the stairs. Go for a ten minute walk. Health doesn’t always have to look like a six-pack possessor on Instagram. It looks like the pervasive mentality of always something.

For me, my knowledge of health surpassed my practice so much that it seemed insurmountable to be healthy. Well, yea, if my goal is instant perfection, for sure it’s impossible. Don’t try to change everything at once or completely. Start with something.

Focus on Goals that You Can Control

When I was setting goals back in October 2017, the personal trainer pal kindly (but firmly) quelled my hopes and dreams of losing pounds by a date. He even said no to my number of push ups by a certain date. Rude.

It’s natural to want results: dress size results, gravitational pull by pounds results, and amount of pull-up results. But, contrary to popular belief, these are not fully controllable goals. Each body is different and operates on a different timeline. Yes, more calories out than calories in does result in weight loss, but prescribing a time line that someone told you about on Instagram is a set-up for discouragement (ask me how I know).

Thus, focus on what you can control:

In three months, I want to be exercising 3x a week consistently.

In two months, I want to be hitting 10k steps a day 5 days a week.

In six months, I want to be hitting the gym most days after work.

In three weeks, I want to be tracking my meals on MyFitnessPal everyday

Build a Habit

Back in October, I only went to the gym 2x a week and it took a remarkable amount of self-convincing each time. Now, I go 6x a week without even planning on it. Habits, I tell ya.

Some say it takes 21 days, but it took two and a half months for me. For others it may take longer. But there comes a point where you do it so often that it’s not as hard to do the first step of just beginning. Maybe you’re building a habit of going for a walk every morning. Sure, those first mornings may feel like death draweth nigh, but eventually your body will come to expect it (even crave it!).

If I, the least athletic person that I know, can come to crave the gym after teaching high schoolers all day…I’m quite certain that such habits can be built by anyone.

Make It Enjoyable

Ask the pastor brother of mine how many different kinds of exercises I’ve tried. He may laugh.

I’ve tried them all.

But that’s okay.

I know what I like and what I don’t like. But also, I know what my scoliosis-having-tendinitis-in-both-knees-possessing body can and cannot do. Well, I’m learning anyway. And sometimes I surprise myself.

I love to run. Unfortunately, my knees and back disagree (disagree in a feel like you threw out your back, can’t even bend over one foot kind of way), so I don’t run.

I hated lifting weights. It looked intimidating. Also, won’t it make me bulky? But with the proper education and experience, I now head straight to the weights. No more lower back pain, I can experience my growing strength, and no, you don’t get bulky, you get toned (you have to try really hard to get bulky *forgive some words, but I appreciate this article’s direct approach).

I do not like walking on a tread mill. So…I don’t.

I do not like riding stationary bikes. So…………I don’t.

Know what I do for cardio? I push and pull a heavy sled. I climb 120 flights of stairs on the stairclimber. Why? Because I enjoy both of those exercises.

I like the gym. The boyfriend likes Hasfit. The pastor brother likes running outside. The business brother likes all things heavy. The best friend likes training for marathons. Find what you enjoy. Then do it. 

Same thing with food: I have found crunchy salty things that I enjoy eating for less calories. I’ve found ways to have healthy fats and delicious protein that doesn’t feel like a chore (I’m looking at you, sautéed tempeh salads with cashew dressing…).

Habits are only sustainable as much as you can actually keep doing them. If you feel like you are purely suffering, it won’t last. Find ways to enjoy it.

Do it for Your Mental Health

My anxiety ebbs and flows, but —my days—it was awful this whole week. Wednesday was the worst. After finishing a long day, weeping as soon as I closed my car door, the idea of heading to a crowded gym wasn’t my idea of a good time. Besides, my body has been frustratingly the same, no evidence of my 6x week workouts and kale salads. Screw it, right? It wasn’t working anyway.

I almost listened to that. Almost.

I would have except for one thing: I knew that I would mentally feel better. I was 100% sure. So I went.

If we just focus on how we look (something I’m terribly guilty of), there will be plenty of reasons to stop taking care of ourselves. But if our focus is to genuinely take care of the bodies that we have, there will always be a reason to make good decisions.


Forgive the longer than intended post. Though I don’t have proof, I’d give my routine exercise and balanced nutrition credit for reducing my 1-2x week anxiety attacks to the fact that I’ve only had three in the last 4.5 months. I just feel….better. I hope you can take steps to do always something for your health!

What about you? Which of these hits home the most? What do you do to take care of your health on a regular basis? Have you experienced mood changes because of your fitness routine? Let us know in the comments!

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