On social media I like to follow topics related to counseling. It helps me stay with the new trends and discoveries of my field and it gives me a look at current attitudes and perceptions around therapy, particularly as it impacts men.
For instance, following the hashtag #MensMentalHealth is interesting. On Instagram you see all the most popular posts, and a pattern emerges. It quickly becomes apparent that our favorite thing to focus on for our mental health is getting ripped.
And this makes sense. You're a whole person and the wellness of your physical self will affect all your other parts. Physical fitness is also the most predictable form of self care. You can pretty much predict what outcomes will be based on what you put into it.
But even as we push toward positive results in our physical being, we can be simultaneously cultivating story--our inner experience of our world, identity, and meaning--that is harmful to the rest of us.
Despite ongoing efforts to change attitudes around physical appearance, it remains a central piece of how we gauge our value--our worthiness, lovability, and success. It doesn't help that the standard often presented for seeing oneself as "fit" is rarely realistic.
But it is a mistake to neglect a vital area of self-care just because we must also work around the bad stories we've picked up about it--and those that continue to be slung our way.
In fact, keeping the discipline of physical exercise in your rotation has mental health benefits as well. A few of these are outlined in a recent Psychology Today article by Dr. Ron Friedman:
"Consider the following cognitive benefits, all of which you can expect as a result of incorporating regular exercise into your routine:
Prolonged mental stamina
Exercise has also been shown to elevate mood..."
Taking care of our bodies is essential, but that doesn't change how difficult it can be when our bodies hold painful (and false) stories about who we are.
If you struggle with engaging with physical self care, the answer lies in changing your mind.
Take the Religion Out of It
Ever notice that, in a mostly secularized culture the one place we still routinely use language about "sin" and "guilt" is around fitness and dieting? We transgress when we indulge in pizza or ice cream or a lazy evening on the couch, and must atone with bland health food or increased exercise.
But positive changes made from a place of punishment have the shortest shelf-life. If you are wanting to make running in the morning or cooking with fresh ingredients part of your routine, it's exponentially harder when you are telling yourself that it's because you deserve to suffer.
This makes you focus on the aspects of the activity that are unpleasant, and more importantly is done in agreement with the idea that we are unlovable or not worthy until we have achieved whatever goal we've set in our minds.
You'll get exhausted fast.
So focus on what you want from this, and learn to see it as a gift to yourself. Name the benefits you hope to reap and decide you're working for them because you deserve to enjoy them.
Work Out Your Awareness
Improving our physical fitness doesn't have to be a purely physical venture. In fact it can be a great arena in which to work on mindfulness, even as we're sweating.
Am I paying attention to what is driving me? Are my goals and expectations realistic? Am I being honest with myself? These are questions we can practice incorporating into our fitness journey that are important everywhere else in life.
Just as you pay attention to your form and endurance throughout your workout, attending to your fitness story throughout your progress will expand the benefits into other areas of your life.
More mindfulness thought-starters for working out:
What's my story with body image? What kinds of things am I often thinking/saying about my body?
How is comparison in this area impacting me?
To what degree does the pursuit of physical fitness impact (positively & negatively) other areas of life?
What do I believe will be different about me or my life when I reach my fitness goals?
Mike Ensley, LPC is a counselor and the owner of Comeback Story Counseling in Loveland, CO.
Photo by Anastase Maragos