It’s 9:03 am, Monday, January 3rd. I arrive at the iconic Gold’s Gym in Venice, California, where I’ve worked out nearly every day for the last five years. This is part of my usual routine; get up by six, walk my dog to a coffee shop where I write for an hour and a half, scarf some oatmeal, then work out. These days, my workouts are my treat, my break from the otherwise hectic nature of my day. It didn’t use to be this way. More on that later.
I walk through the various rooms and see that all the regulars are there. We smile at each other through our masks as I walk by. I give a few of them hugs, and we wish each other a good workout.
As usual for this time of year, there are a lot of new faces I’ve never seen before in the gym. I scan the various rooms, wondering who I will see again and who will only make it in a few times before life gets in the way, and they decide that 2022 is not their year to prioritize their fitness after all.
Yet this year, something feels different. Yes, there are still the usual types slogging away on the treadmill, watching the minutes tick away as they hope to burn off the remnants of as many holiday cookies as possible in one go. But aside from the typical weight loss and muscle building goals, many of the newbies I’ve talked to have resolved to exercise not just for physical health or appearance reasons, but because they feel better mentally and emotionally when they exercise.
In the past, this awareness that exercise leads to a better mood and improved headspace is something I’d only hear from people who had long embraced the identity of an athlete. Runners, for example, have long proclaimed that their runs are their primary source of sanity. In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, celebrated Japanese writer Haruki Murakami writes that he runs to acquire a void. That void is peace; it’s flow; it’s a break from the otherwise endless chatter of the monkey mind. And it’s something that most runners and athletes come to crave.
Push-Ups and Self-Efficacy
I am one of those athletes. I don’t like to run, but I do like to jump, push, pull, and punch things on a regular basis. Although I started my fitness journey in my early twenties with the hope that I’d work off the extra pounds I’d gained sneaking free drinks and pastries as a Starbucks barista, I’ve kept up with my workouts over the years for other reasons. Namely, I began to notice the noticeable shift in my mental space when I exercised compared to when I didn’t.
Growing up, I was an “emo” kid full of angst and riddled with anxiety. By the time I’d reached college, I’d all but given up on myself and life in general. I’d written off my physical and mental capabilities, determining that I’d “failed” as a human being before I’d reached the age of twenty-one.
With no other outlets, fitness became my godsend. My workouts taught me that I was capable of much more than I’d previously thought. When I started out, I could barely do a single push-up. But I chipped away at it and eventually turned from someone who couldn’t do challenging exercises to someone who could.
Through push-ups, pull-ups, burpees, and the punching of things, I built confidence in my abilities, (which psychologists call self-efficacy). At the same time, I slowly began to escape the fog of depression I’d spent most of my adolescence. Through exercise, I began to view a higher version of myself, one that was strong not only physically but also mentally.
Mental Health and Exercise
There are bright sides to any crisis. While the COVID pandemic has certainly brought with it many challenges, it’s also highlighted the importance of mental and emotional health. And I’ve noticed that over the past two years, a global conversation has begun around using exercise as a tool not only for maintaining a healthy body but a healthy mind, as well.
Before the pandemic, the general consensus around exercise was that it was something we should do mainly to keep our bodies functional, strong, and prevent serious health issues. But the benefits of exercise go far beyond just the physical. In my own life and the lives of those around me, I’ve witnessed just how much exercise can benefit our mental wellness and well-being.
Regular exercise can help lift your mood, give you more energy, and help you think more clearly. It can give you some much-needed time to yourself in an otherwise chaotic day. It can get you out of your head, shift your perspective, and even help you approach the world with more optimism. Study after study shows that moving your body improves your mental health.
We even have data from the Covid pandemic: A survey of nearly 13,700 people from 18 countries published in Frontiers in Psychology in September 2020 found that people who exercised frequently during the first stages of the worldwide lockdown reported greater well-being and more positive moods.
In Spark, John Ratey, M.D. enthusiastically proposes that what we normally think of as the main benefits of exercise — those on the body — are essentially bonus side effects. The real reason exercise is so good for us is that it builds and conditions the brain. “To keep our brains at peak performance,” he writes, “our bodies need to work hard.”
That hard work is something I’ve come to crave. On this day, I begin my workout, a circuit of jump rope sprints and calisthenics. I do so knowing that by the end, I’ll be in a better headspace than when I began. As I do so, I look around at the faces of the newbies. I secretly hope all the new faces I see will become familiar ones.
I know they’ll feel better if they do.