The Battle Between Mental Illness and Physical Fitness

They say that exercise is important in maintaining mental health. Therefore, those with mental illness should be diligent about maintaining their physical fitness. As a former competitive runner and a graduate of a bachelor’s degree in physical education, I agree cognitively. However, as someone who has suffered severely from mental illness, I will tell you that being physically fit while mentally ill is a paradox.

In my deepest darkest days of mental illness (I’m talking about the pleading with God to end my life days. I’m talking about the, “I can’t take this anymore, how can I end my life?” days.) telling me to go out and be physically active was like telling me to just brush it off and buck up.

In case you are unfamiliar with mental illness, there are several things you should never tell anyone in the depths of their illness.

Chin up! Things will get better!
Man up and get over it.

Pray more. Read the Bible more.

Just think positive thoughts.

Get up and do something you enjoy.

Just trust that God’s got this!

There are more, but you get the idea. Mental illness goes much deeper than that. You can’t just wish it away. Wherever “away” is, it will follow you. When you wake up in the morning it is there pinning you to your bed. When you get ready for the day, you fight with every ounce of your strength to do mundane things, like brushing your teeth or pulling up your pants. When someone is talking to you and you have a smile on your face to mask the fact that you aren’t alright, all you want to do is find a dark hole to curl up in so that you don’t have to act like a functioning human being.

In this deep dark bottomless hole of despair and pain, exercise of any kind felt like being asked to climb Mt. Everest. Picking up my foot and moving it in front of me so that I could walk to the front door was strenuous enough. Asking me to do anything that got my heart-rate up was unthinkable. 

On my “good” days, I found I could do yoga. It’s focused on intentional movements and can be as calming and soothing or rigorous and invigorating as you need it to be. I was stuck in yoga for a long time.

As my medical treatments began to work, I found I could do some gentle calisthenics while my son was riding his tricycle down the sidewalk. 

Somewhere in that place my son wanted to plant some seeds, so we did some light gardening.

Eventually my mind became clear enough that I could hook up the bike trailer and take my son for a casual bike ride.

The “light” gardening morphed into a serious “dig a 2 foot deep hole in the mostly clay ground in my backyard and construct a raised garden bed using cement blocks” gardening. Now we’re serious gardeners and I have the biceps to prove it.

My bike rides began to have intentional vigor.

Then the run happened. I had a little time before work after dropping my son off from school, so I decided to go for a walk on this recreation path around a little lake on the way home. I started walking. Then I decided that after 10 minutes of walking I would try 10 minutes of running. I did two of these intervals, which got me back to my starting point, 40 minutes in all. And it felt good. Running hasn’t felt that good to me in probably 10 years. To remind you, I used to be a competitive runner (a good one). 

One day after dropping my son off at school, I stopped at a recreation trail to go for a walk. I then decided that, after walking 10 minutes, I would run 10 minutes. I did this twice.

I decided to do the same thing a week later. This time I would walk 8 minutes, run 12 minutes twice as I made my way around the lake. My 12 minute timer dinged and I just didn’t stop. I ran another 10 minutes before I got back to my car, 30 minutes in all. And a few days later a 3 mile/30 minute run with a quick walk to warm up and cool down.

This is an exciting development for me as I have a love-hate relationship with running. My hope is that I will continue biking, gardening, and doing yoga. Then, at least once each week push myself to run faster and longer. Or maybe find a bigger loop. Or maybe run a marathon! However, my track record shows that I might be getting ahead of myself. My manic side tells me that I can do more than is realistic. My depressive side grabs hold of me and my big ideas will all crash and burn. 

When you are dealing with mental illness, like a lot of chronic medical challenges, it affects all areas of your life. The “obvious” road to health can’t always start with what’s the best. It needs to start with what’s next. The thing that’s right in front of your face. Turning off your alarm and sitting up in bed. Pouring yourself a cup of coffee and getting some sort of nourishment in your body. Brushing your teeth. Looking passable before you leave the house. Getting to work or school on time. Sometimes that’s all you can do that day. 

And that’s ok. 

There’s always tomorrow. 

At this point, I’ve written about the deepest darkness, so I can’t not mention your life. You matter. Your life matters. I don’t care how deep you are wedged in that pit. I don’t care how much you want to loosen yourself and plummet to the bottom. Never to resurface. Never to feel pain again. I don’t care how badly you just want to die. I’ve been there. There are two things that have kept me alive.

  1. Knowing Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Knowing that He knows my pain even better than I do. Knowing that He’s saved me once and He will save me again. His Spirit lives in me and at the very moment when I think I just can’t take it anymore, He distracts me from my pain.
  2. Knowing that someone needs me. Whenever I get to that deep darkness, I think about who will miss me when I’m gone. Or, if that seems unthinkable, who I would miss if they were gone. Usually I will think of one person, then another will come to mind, then another. I’m reminded that there are people who care. I might think that I am a burden on them and my absence would make their life better, but I am wrong. They will miss me and grieve deeply.

    Additionally, there are people in this world that need me and I don’t even know that they need me. This is why I write. Because my story is a lot like someone else’s story. If they (maybe you) read my story, then they won’t feel so alone. They will see that it gets better. They will find hope.

    Jesus CAN save you. 

Someone WILL miss you. 

Someone DOES need you. 

Who are you to take that away from them?

If you are in the can’t get out of bed, don’t want to live anymore, deepest darkness, please reach out. 

Reach out to someone safe. 

Or call the suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-8255.