Exercise helps you stay calm, fend off mental demons
BY DONYA CURRIE
When Julie Eiben’s husband was deployed for 14 months to Liberia, the 38-year-old mother of four hired a babysitter once a week so she could go for a long run.
“I could hang out and talk to my girlfriends and just be me for a couple of hours, and run and feel good and then come home and deal with everything,” said Eiben, whose children range in age from 4 to 12. “That was my go-to stress outlet while he was gone.”
Her husband, Stacy, returned from Liberia just in time for Thanksgiving, and Eiben still makes workouts a personal priority. The certified personal trainer, who works as a trainer at Green Fitness in Fredericksburg and also teaches group fitness classes at the YMCA on Butler Road, said exercise is key to her mental as well as physical health.
“I can be having a really bad day. I’ve argued with the kids or fought with my husband or somebody cut me off or, you know, just a bad day, and I walk in to class and almost instantly I feel better,” Eiben said. “As soon as I get my heart rate up, I start feeling better. And then I can even think about what made me upset and it just doesn’t bother me as much.”
‘I’M A HAPPIER PERSON’
Brent Kynaston, 37, describes his house, with its five kids, ages 3–13, and two dogs, as “like a Fredericksburg circus.”
The software engineer learned a few years ago the value of transforming from couch potato to workout enthusiast. Not only did he lose 40 pounds, but his mood improved dramatically.
“I know, for me, exercising is really therapeutic,” said Kynaston, who is a fan of triathlons and fitness classes. “I feel like I’m more patient with the kids. I’m a better husband. I’m a happier person if I’m exercising regularly.”
Kynaston is the type who enjoys the camaraderie of working out with friends and his wife, Danyelle. If he’s not training for a triathlon, he’s likely to take several classes a week including power yoga, indoor cycling, swimming and boot camp.
“I love the people I’m doing this with,” he said. “You create relationships, and these people are like your brothers and sisters.”
Kynaston said exercise helps him maintain his weight and his positive mental outlook.
“Emotionally, I literally feel happier,” he said. “I think [my wife] Dani and I both have experienced that. If we’re in a funk or kind of feeling sad or depressed, just a walk around the block with the dog helps.”
‘MY SANITY CHECK’
Most nights Beverly Liposky, 68, can be found in her Spotyslvania neighborhood walking by flashlight.
“That’s my sanity check,” Liposky said about her nightly, 8-mile trek that sometimes she’ll take at 1 or 2 a.m., depending on her workday. “I think my neighbors probably think I’m out of my mind. But I do it because I don’t want to backslide. I don’t want to go back to a huge weight and feel crummy.”
Liposky said she had always been an avid walker but then entered law school at age 48 and found little time for exercise. Add in a health condition that required her to take large doses of prednisone, and she soon gained about 70 pounds.
Her doctor told her to start walking again, and she hasn’t looked back.
“By the end of the day sometimes I’m so stressed out, and it’ll make you feel tired, and I think, ‘Oh, I don’t even want to take a walk.’ But once you get out there, your feet start walking and they almost go by themselves,” she said. “I find that my walks greatly improve my mental well-being.”
‘IMPROVING PEOPLE’S WORKDAYS’
It would be easy to look at Chris Innocenti’s six-pack abs and think physical fitness is his main workout motivator. But the 34-year-old personal trainer and father of two young sons says it’s all about balance.
“The whole ‘mind, body spirit’ thing is so true to me,” he said about the philosophy of his workplace, the YMCA.
In addition to putting clients through grueling workouts, Innocenti works out with weights five days a week.
“I have to, or I would snap something in half,” said Innocenti, who works with eight to 10 personal training clients daily and also helps lead twice-weekly boot camp workouts as part of the Jungle Boys.
He experiences the mental health benefits of exercise and also sees those benefits among his clients, who might arrive after a wheel-gripping commute on Interstate 95 and within minutes of strength training feel stress relief.
“I think it’s improving people’s workdays, coming in here,” he said. “Especially these days, with both parents working, people are under stress.”
Diane Clauson started a walkers club near her Orange County home a little over a year ago and has found that the twice-weekly exercise, coupled with other workouts, keeps her mentally and physically fit.
“It’s important to find what works for you,” said Clauson, 60, who years ago taught fitness classes that would be crammed in January, then whittled down to just a few participants by Feb. 1.
She likes the fellowship of twice weekly walks with the group as well as other workouts done solo.
“I personally think it’s better for your mental health than your body in many cases,” she said. “It just goes hand in hand. And you know, it’s free. You don’t have to put pills down your throat to take away your mood swings.”
Although exercise is proven to help with mental wellness, some people struggling with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues may also need medication and counseling. Mental Health America of Fredericksburg has a listing of local providers at mhafred.org/mhproviders/index.htm. The agency also has a Mental Health HelpLine: 540/371-2704 or 800/684-6423.
DON’T GO OVERBOARD
A growing body of scientific research is linking exercise to good mental health. Yet as with most things, moderation is key.
A study published in the September issue of Preventive Medicine, for example, found the optimum amount of weekly exercise for good mental health ranged from 2.5 to 7.5 hours weekly, depending on a person’s age, gender and general physical health.
More than 7.5 hours of weekly exercise was linked to “diminished mental health.”
The study’s authors noted considerable research that has found exercise helps a range of mental health issues including depression and anxiety.
But the study of about 7,600 people noted a sharp increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety for those who exercise more than 7.5 hours weekly.
Chris Innocenti, a personal trainer at the Butler Road YMCA and Jungle Boys Training, said he advises people to work out four days a week. Days of rest, he said, are as important to fitness as workouts.
“If you’re just lifting, lifting, lifting, you’re going to drive yourself crazy,” he said.
He counsels clients on finding the right mix of physical activity, rest, sleep and nutrition.
While it’s far more common for Americans to be getting too little than too much exercise, mental and physical health can suffer for those who push the limits. Check with your doctor about the right amount of physical activity for you.
Donya Currie is a freelance writer in Stafford County who regularly contributes to Healthy Living and other health-related publications, including the AARP Bulletin. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.