Life can be busy. Life can be challenging. We all seem to know this too well. Go to work. Do the laundry. Clean the house. Help with homework. Go to soccer practice. Cook dinner. Do the dishes. Finally take a shower and undwind…at 9:00. Does this sound familiar? Do we ever really unwind? For many of us, the thought of truly unwinding after a hard day’s work eludes us. We all have that wish in the back of our minds that “it will happen today”, but yet again it’s just a thought that merely escapes our wandering mind. Yet we know that to find peace, we must be able to unwind…and I have no problem saying “unwind daily”. For the first responder, unwinding is critical. The inability to do this can have serious negative consequences. But how then, do we do that? Let’s discuss the importance of living a healthy lifestyle.
I think I say for pretty much certain that we all know that living an unhealthy lifestyle can contribute to many undesireable conditions…chronic stress, chronic inflammation, irritability, obesity, diabetes, cancer…should I keep going? Add to this unhealthy lifestyle the everyday stress that a first responder experiences on the job, and the results can be catastrophic. Numerous studies have proven that physical activity, and thus fitness, have a positive impact on mental health and clarity.
I am a marathon runner, and my husband Doug is a triathlete. Our love for the sport has not only kept us healthy physically, but has also had a profound impact on the road we have walked to recovery and healing from the impact of my husbands attempted suicide and subsequent diagnoses of PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
Exercise is one of the most effective ways to improve your mental health. Studies have shown that regular exercise can be as effective in treating mild to moderate depression as antidepressants. It seems like such a no brainer, yet somehow we find the excuses to get us out of this thing that truly can make us feel so much better. From personal experience, I can tell you that even on the days I have no desire to train, when I force myself to put my running shoes on and let me feet hit the pavement, there is almost instant gratification. However, I am not a first responder. I’ve only experienced the stress of the job secondhand as a spouse. My husband most certainly echoes the same sentiment, though. Physical activity is a large part of what kept him on the road to recovery.
Excercise realeases endorphins. You know, those little things that make us feel great. Exercise also increases seratonin and dopamine in the brain. Both are critical to a positive state in mental health. Seratonin plays a role in sending messages about appetite, sleep, and mood. Dopamine plays a role in how the body perceives rewards, and is heavily involved with addictions. When amounts of this chemical messenger are low, it is linked to mental health conditions including depression. The proof is right in front of us, so why wouldn’t we want to be more active? It is good for our brain, our heart, and our mental health!
I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy, though. It’s not. You have to set goals. Set expectations. Push yourself. Before you throw the towel in on the this thought, remember how you got to where you are today. It wasn’t easy by any means. You had expectations. You set goals. You pushed yourself. So yes, that warrior is within you. You just have to dig deep and pull him or her to the surface.
So how do you start? Some of us are former athletes. Some of us have never exercised a day in our life. It doesn’t matter. Try something you think you might enjoy. Swimming, running, hiking, racket ball, tennis, cycling, kickball, cross fit, yoga…whatever. It doesn’t matter what it is. Try it…but give it time to truly decide if it’s something you’ll enjoy. Start small and remember, it’s not supposed to be easy. My running is never easy. There are days I just want to say “forget this nonsense”. Then I remember the feeling I get at the start line. The hundreds of miles of training I put in over 18 weeks. The pain and yes, suffering. It’s all worth it! And yes, it’s worth it every day. You will be amazed at the mental clarity you will achieve by becoming more active. You will notice the stress of the day just melts away, and if you can find time in the morning to get your exercise in, you’ll find that your work day will almost always start off on the right foot, leaving you more capable of dealing with the day’s stress.
Remember I said Doug and I were athletes? We have both stood on the winner’s podium quite a few times between the two of us. Next week we will be completing the Marine Corps Marathon, but we won’t be running the 26.2 mile course this time. We’ll be walking, and this certainly is not how we’re used to doing it. Life threw us some curve balls this year. I had major facial surgery from skin cancer in the beginning of the year, and Doug spent the entire summer on a PICC line for IV antibiotics for a very serious staph infection he contracted after rotator cuff surgery. Between trying to get healthy, family, and work, we both had every opportunity to give up and bag this race. We won’t do that, though. This is our strength, our resilience, our way to make sure we unwind and #livehappy. What will you do to reawaken your inner warrior?