November 14, 2009 / 2 COMMENTS
Breakover (Breakup Recovery) Tip #8: Get Yourself Moving and Out of Your Own Way
For a while I've been dealing with a physical injury--a tear in a ligament of the foot--which had hampered my mobility and made exercising very difficult since I can't to anything involving putting weight on the foot or pointing the toes (which tends to happen when swimming). I recently discovered a solution: using a flotation belt to run while suspended in the water. It feels a little silly, but also kind of fun, and the improvement in my mood since I got back to being active is remarkable. It's a great reminder for me of the importance of exercise for well-being, which is something that I focus on a lot in working with my clients.
My clients and I talk a lot about exercise because if you are going through a breakup or any other challenging life situation, getting (or keeping) your body moving is one of the most important things you can do to keep yourself in a state of relative balance and health.
You've probably heard a million things about why exercise is good for us physically, but its psychological effects are just as important, as outlined by this article about exercise to relieve/prevent depression and anxiety from the Mayo Clinic or a similar one from WebMD. They both explain that regular moderate exercise like walking, recreational biking or swimming improves mood and reduces stress through its biochemical effects on our brain and the rest of our nervous system. This relationship is so clear that several psychiatrists with whom I've collaborated in treating people with mild to moderate depression have insisted that those patients begin a regular exercise program before they would prescribe anti-depressants. When a professional whose main function is to give medications makes exercise their first choice over drugs, I take notice! Much of the time the depression would begin to lift just from the exercise. (Just to be clear, we did NOT follow this practice if the patient was severely depressed and/or seemed at risk of hurting themselves--in that case the patient got medication AND exercise together right away. There are some situations when medication is necessary and useful, and I'm by no mean saying otherwise. Also please remember that if you are taking medications it is EXTREMELY dangerous to go off of them without carefully tapering the dose under the supervision of a professional. Okay?)
Anyway, one thought about why exercise helps balance our moods and reduce the negative effects of stress involves the fight-or-flight response. When we encounter danger, our nervous system is programmed to react by getting ready to run away from the source of the danger or fight it off in order to defend ourselves. This comes in handy if we find ourselves being accosted in a dark alley. Unfortunately the same alarm system gets tripped in all kinds of emotionally "dangerous" situations too, like when you see your ex's new profile on match.com, for example. And when the fight-or-flight response gets activated a lot it can take on a life of its own and seem to go off nearly constantly (kind of like your neighbor's car alarm, or the smoke detector that screams every time you brown a slice of toast). That kind of wear and tear on your system can lead to anxiety, depression and other emotional problems. Exercise helps prevent this problem by allowing your stress response system to play itself out: when you actually carry out the act of "fleeing" (running and other cardio) or "fighting" (boxing, karate, weightlifting), your internal alarm system gets reset because it's been allowed to perform its function. Your body is sort of telling your nervous system, "okay, we've dealt with the problem, you can relax now". When you stop exercising your body and mind are signaled to relax fully, leaving you feeling calmer and more peaceful than before you started. Experiencing this process can help protect you and make you generally less emotionally reactive throughout the day.
Getting yourself moving during the day also helps you sleep better at night, and when you're feeling lovelorn, sleep can be challenging. Less tossing and turning the night before makes you feel better the next day, and so the positive cycle continues.
Besides making you sad, anxious, and sleepless, breakups have a way of messing with your confidence, especially your sense of attractiveness. Exercise helps with this too. You're probably saying, "Duh, exercise changes the way you look so of course you feel better about yourself!" Yes, exercise can make you look better, but research shows that the simple act of exercising regularly, without changing weight, shape or any other physical indicators, actually improves your body image ( ). So even if you don't lose a pound or a single inch off your waist, the fact that you are moving that body around on a regular basis will still make you feel better about it. And ever notice how feeling more attractive actually makes you more attractive? A flat stomach and firm butt are nice to have but there is nothing quite so sexy as confidence.
Okay, so clearly it's a really good idea to get regular exercise while you're dealing with a stressful breakup. The problem, of course, is that the very reasons why you need to be exercising also get in the way of doing it. When you're feeling heartbroken a part of you just wants to curl up in a ball on the couch with a tub of ice cream. Getting up and out of the house, much less to the gym, can feel like a huge challenge.
The good news is that you don't have to do any intense training in order to get the benefits I've been describing, nor do you have to do anything for long periods. So if you feel daunted by the thought of exercise, here some some suggestions might help:
1) Start really small. Tell yourself that you're just going to walk for 10 minutes (or around the block). Tread water in the pool for 3 songs-worth on the radio. Or try doing just 2 sets of yoga sun-salutations. It will make a difference in how you feel, and how you feel about yourself. Work yourself up gradually to longer workouts on average, but make it okay on any given day to just do the minimum.
2) If you possibly can, try exercising the very first thing in the morning. Put your sneakers and socks and whatever else you would need for your exercise of choice right next to the bed and put them on before you even fully get up (or your yoga mat already laid out or whatever). Get yourself moving before you've even had a chance to think that much about what you're doing (and before you have a chance to talk yourself out of it).
3) Try exercising with other people when possible. The companionship makes the time go by faster, and making plans involving other people will increase your commitment to actually do it. Take a dance class, go on a hike with local outdoor group like the Sierra Club, or start a little walking group among your coworkers during lunch or right after work. Better yet, try joining or organizing a group training program for a charity walking or running event among friends or coworkers; you'll have companionship, structure, a goal to work towards and the satisfaction of helping your community.
4) If, like me, you have any injuries or mobility issues then water exercise is often a good option. If you don't normally have access to a pool, your health insurance might be able to help you out with that since you'd be using it for rehabilitation. A flotation belt from Speedo or Aquajogger will allow you to stay upright and jog, run, "cross country ski" and do all kinds of other exercises in zero gravity. They're adjustable but you still want to make sure you get the right size for your frame so you float properly and feel comfortable wearing the belt. Aquajogger even makes a belt designed specifically for women with smaller waists that won't ride up on you.
If you already exercise regularly then you probably already know what you need to do to stay motivated and focused. If you can, try increasing the intensity or variety of your workouts to get even more benefit. Kickboxing, anyone? It's a great combination of fight AND flight.
I won't pretend that exercise will solve everything, but it really can help smooth out those jagged emotional edges that a bad breakup can leave behind. So put the ice cream back in the freezer and get yourself in motion for a little while. That pint of rocky road will still be waiting for you when you're done, but you may not want it anymore - did I mention that exercise can help even out your appetite and reduce food cravings?
Happy trails (or happy treadmill, elliptical, or whatever works for you),