Health & Fitness

It's time to recognize exercise as a prescription for mental health

Workouts That Focus on Physical And Mental Fitness

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Health & Fitness

It's time to recognize exercise as a prescription for mental health

Workouts that emphasize empowerment over physical punishment are changing the way we exercise. 

Earlier this year, actress Lena Dunham was hit with an avalanche of attention online and in the media for stepping out looking decidedly more lithe than usual. When Dunham, who deals with chronic anxiety and pain from endometriosis, decided to make a change for her health, the by-product was weight loss. She also lost a substantial amount of weight, she said, after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump spiked her anxiety and stole her appetite. This kicked off a discussion about exercise that focuses on not only a firm bottom but also strengthening our bodies and rebalancing our emotional core–or, as Dunham so colourfully put it, “It ain’t about the ass; it’s about the brain.” With the help of celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson (think Madonna’s arms, JLo’s legs or Gwyneth’s...well, anything)—who just “gets it,” according to Dunham—she is now feeling better, managing her health and coping with her chronic pain and stress. Trainer Tracy Anderson (think Madonna’s arms, JLo’s legs or Gwyneth’s...well, anything)—who just “gets it,” according to Dunham—she is now feeling better, managing her health and coping with her chronic pain and stress.

20 slimdown diet tips! 1. anxiety disorder * 2. resultant constant nausea 3. an election that reveals the true depths of American misogyny  4. constant sweaty dreams of dystopian future  5. abdominal adhesions pinning ovary below uterus * 6. baseless but still harrowing threats to physical safety online and through smail mail  7. watching institutions you love from Planned Parenthood to PBS be threatened by cartoon mustache-twirling villains  8. finally realizing superheroes aren't real (specifically the X-Factor, really thought they'd handle this) 9. marching your ass off 10. a quiet rage that replaces need for food with need for revenge 11. sleeping 19 hours a day 12. realizing that even the liberal media wants dem clicks no matter whut  13. worrying ceaselessly about the health and safety of women you know and women you don't  14. realizing who ya real friends are 15. having to switch from Uber to Lyft (lots of calories burned trying to understand a new app, then even more trying to understand if the conflict was resolved) 16. bladder spasms, urinary frequency and urgency * 17. having your phone number leaked and violent images texted to your phone by randos under names like VERYFATCHUCKYBOY@creepz.com 18. keeping your back arched against the wind 19. um, who the fuck cares? 20. I have no tips I give no tips I don't want to be on this cover cuz it's diametrically opposed to everything I've fought my whole career for and it's not a compliment to me because it's not an achievement thanx * Star indicates a pre-existing condition

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Being stressed is becoming the new normal; our brains are working overtime. Even if you’re lucky enough not to suffer from any particular physical or mental-health challenges, feeling stressed is a symptom of life in the 21st century. And as women, we are hard-wired for anxiety. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), women are twice as likely as men to develop anxiety disorders and depression. Dr. Donna Ferguson, a clinical psychologist at CAMH, recommends exercise to her patients and strongly suggests that it should be a more recognized part of the prescription for mental health. Beyond the endorphin rush of a good sweat session, notes Ferguson, exercise also increases serotonin (the happy hormone). “Since many anti-depressants work on serotonin levels, in some cases, exercise can even eliminate the need for drugs and the likelihood of future depressive episodes,” she says. It can also help in dire situations because exercise mimics some of the symptoms suffered during anxiety and panic attacks, like a raised heart rate and rapid breathing. “Learning to cope with those feelings in a controlled and positive setting can be very empowering,” she adds.

Luckily, the fitness industry is making it easier to achieve sweaty nirvana. The American College of Sports Medicine’s annual survey of fitness trends for 2017 included “Exercise Is Medicine,” an initiative encouraging doctors to include exercise in their prescription arsenal, and classes that emphasize mental wellness, positivity and mindfulness. As a result, gyms are responding with programs that replace the drill-sergeant call to arms of your boot-camp class with soothing chanting and praise that feels so sincere, it’s almost suspicious. Take the class led by celebrity trainer Holly Rilinger, star of Bravo’s Work Out New York. Rilinger’s “Lifted” classes combine the scorching cardio of a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout with the feel-good Zen of meditation to help you achieve what she calls “the joy factor.” SoulCycle built the “om” right into its name, and it delivers with its heart- pounding rides combined with life-affirming mantras and inspiration. Now more than ever, it seems that you can turn your workouts into mini pep rallies for your psyche while still achieving your physical goals.

Of course, all exercise helps to reduce stress by virtue of the cascade of hormonal changes and the expending of energy, but that immediate relief can be fleeting. This new generation of classes encourages focus, looking within and mastering our emotional responses to physical and mental challenges. The end result is that we walk out with a new life skill, not just a taut tush. Amber Joliat of Misfit Studio in Toronto has amassed a cult following in equal parts for her core-scorching Pilates classes and her warm and empowering vibe. According to Joliat, the effects of her class—which she likens to a meditation practice (think intention setting, mantras and mental-focus reminders while doing your rollups and crisscrosses)— “go well beyond your time in the studio,” leaving students with more than just a serotonin lift. “There is something deeply rewarding about being able to physically move through a challenging sequence that stays with you, so when you’re confronted with chal- lenging circumstances in life, on an unconscious level, there is a knowing that you are capable of moving past the discomfort,” says Joliat. This is right in line with the thinking of Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuro-scientist and the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds in Madison, Wis. “Meditation gives you the wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind can exaggerate the severity of a setback and resist getting drawn into the abyss,” he says.

Vancouver-based trainer Aaron De Jong shares a similar sentiment. “We’re often limited by our own perceived physical capacity rather than our actual ability,” he says. “Those who are more aware of how they think and feel are more able to realistically meet desired outcomes”—and also slow down if they’ve reached their limit. That goes for whether you’re at the gym or not.

And that’s where the mantras and soulful inspiration of today’s best instructors combined with the power of the group may save your sanity...and your quads. In fact, these styles of workouts just may be- come your go-to version of meditation as you navigate your own anxiety, life stressors and that one guy in traffic who will not turn off his damn blinker. If, in the process, you get fitter and feel a lot better, who could argue with that?

 

Four workout classes you won't dread going to
 

These classes emphasize empowerment over physical punishment. 

 

1. SoulCycle

The low-lit environment makes riders feel less self-conscious, says Adam Hildebrand, an instructor at Toronto’s King Street location, which allows them to focus inward. “The mental component comes from pushing yourself through challenging resistance and complicated choreography.”  There is also a location in Vancouver’s Yaletown.

one month in and Toronto already feels like home... @fraserbarke @rootscanada 🎶: @sabadodomingo_

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2. Scullhouse Rowing

The Toronto studio offers a Row & Flow class, which combines rowing with Vinyasa yoga. “Any repetitive motion can be meditative,” says studio owner Kristin Jeffery. “The added element of the group dynamic limits the mental pressure of counting strokes. The group (and the instructor) pulls the individual along; you can just turn off the brain.”


3. 2.0 Toronto

This organization holds conferences that founder Julian Ho calls the “TED Talks of fitness.” “The physical and mental are inseparable,” he says, referencing mechanotransduction—how cells translate mechanical movement into electro- and biochemical activity—as evidence of this approach.


4. Moment Meditation

Take all that well-meaning mindfulness advice to a pro level at Moment Meditation in Vancouver. Choose from a full menu of meditation classes or take its 20-minute assessment to learn your MQ (the “calm, focused and happy cousin of your IQ”) based on measurements of things like heart rate and muscle tension. “What results is a score depicting your ability to respond to stress,” says co-founder Anita Cheung. “We see that individuals who meditate regularly have a higher score, and that translates into success in workouts—and in life.”


This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of ELLE Canada. 

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Health & Fitness

It's time to recognize exercise as a prescription for mental health