Why incentives matter
By Rebecca Peterson, Staff Writer
One of the first things they tell you if you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, especially a mood disorder, is that you have to exercise.
Not only do you have to exercise, but maybe you only have a mental illness because you don’t exercise! If you’re sad, you should try walking for an hour and a half every day! Can’t tell the difference between reality and what’s in your head? Hop on the elliptical for a while! It’ll solve literally every single one of your problems!
This is not too far off what I was told during some of my worst struggles with my mental illness. At my deepest low, when all I had the energy to do was sleep 18 hours a day and drag myself from my bed to the couch and back again, being told that I “just had to exercise” was not only infuriating, but deeply disheartening. It felt like I was to blame for my own brain malfunctions. Maybe if I was an avid jogger I wouldn’t feel this way. Maybe I was only sick because I was too lazy to take care of myself.
Now that I do exercise nearly every day thanks to my job, I can safely call BS on that line of self-blame. While exercise may be the key for some, for a lot of us, our biological chemical imbalances can’t be completely cured by a daily hot yoga session. I still experience many of the same mental health problems I did when scaling a flight of stairs left me sweat-drenched and gasping for air.
However, while it might not be a cure, exercise does help. Taking care of your body does improve your mind. It’s just not the end-all, be-all answer, and should never be used as a way to blame mentally ill people for their problems.
The problem I had with exercise when my mind was at its lowest, and one I still have, is that exercise can be incredibly boring. I wish I could be one of those people who experience a thrill after a 30-minute session doing squats and crunches with Jillian Michaels, but I’m not. One of the worst things in the world for my mental health is letting my brain idle for too long without a way to keep it engaged, and exercise provides a lot of time for aimless thinking. I can only imagine that many mentally ill people might feel the same way, and prefer to keep the mind occupied with books, games, and tasks that require thinking rather than let it take the back seat to physical pursuits.
This is why it’s important to find incentives to exercise.
Portable technology is revolutionizing the way people exercise, from listening to music on an iPod while jogging, to being able to count steps and measure progress in an easy, quantifiable way. The Zombies, Run! app became incredibly popular for providing the listener a virtual reality experience while exercising. Jogging is far less boring if you’ve got a horde of zombies on your heels chasing after you.
Recently in media, Pokémon Go has been lauded for getting people out of their houses and active. There have been accounts from people with major depressive disorders who’ve claimed that Pokémon Go has vastly improved their physical health by providing a fun incentive to walk and run.
So no, if you have a mental illness and you’re not exercising, it doesn’t mean you’re lazy, and it doesn’t mean that you’re to blame for your illness. However, if you do want to start exercising and can’t seem to take that first step, there are options to make it fun and rewarding.