We all know that exercise is good for the brain. But you might find that some workouts are more helpful for you than others.
Let’s relive the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day I had last week, shall we?
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re in my shoes. The day starts with therapy. You sit there and sob for 45 minutes, telling your therapist about how you feel you’ve been stretched too thin lately. After that, you run over to your friend’s apartment to pick up some belongings. You chat and hear about how she’s struggling. You cry with her because you can relate.
Then, you run back home to pack for an extended trip to London. Oh, wait, you forgot to do laundry. Do that, too. But make sure you send a text and check in on your other friend — she’s going through a breakup and needs a shoulder to cry on.
Ah! You forgot to send that wedding gift. You have to Venmo that. Check your bank account first and make sure you have enough money to do so. But also text your former landlord — you haven’t gotten your security deposit back.
UGH, why haven’t you made time to work on the book you’re writing?!? If you don’t make time for it, your career is going to fail. YOU are going to fail. Oh, wait, you should eat. Eating is important. But remember that your IBD is active and you have to be careful about what you put in your body.
Wait, you need to go get that flu shot! You must do that, especially before your flight. Run to the pharmacy and wait in an absurdly long line. Did you text back the guy you’re seeing? You’ll want to see him before your flight.
And call your parents! Now go drop off those shoes you borrowed from your friend. Eek, you accidentally scuffed them, and she is not happy about that. Listen to her tell you that she feels like you haven’t been treating her like a friend recently.
Walk away. You sob on a very crowded subway. You accept a tissue and a comforting smile from a stranger. You cry more because of her kindness.
You enter your rowing studio. You go to the bathroom, and wipe your tears.
Then you get on an erg. Row. Methodically, rhythmically. Legs, body, arms. Arms, body, legs. Over and over and over and over again. You feel your mind quiet.
Listen, we have bad days. Those terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days when every! little! thing! seems to go wrong. It’s hard being a human. We’re all busy showing up for friends, calling our families, walking our pets, and having emotional check-ins with partners. It’s exhausting.
And top it off with the menial everyday life tasks — laundry, eating, brushing your teeth … it can all sometimes feel impossible.
When I was having this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, a friend suggested that I take a day off from working out. “You’ve been running around all day — do you need to go to rowing?” she asked.
I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I would happily take the time to get to my rowing class. In fact, it’s what I needed to do most. I consider fitness a medication. It has completely transformed my mental health and given me a better understanding of my body, my mind, and my resilience. I’m not being dramatic when I say it’s saved me.
This past January, I found myself in a workout rut. I was bored of my normal strength training. I didn’t care for mat pilates, and I couldn’t afford reformer pilates. Cycling is great, but it’s a bit too much cardio. I enjoy yoga, but that’s not enough cardio. And running was not an option. As much as I love fitness, running is where I draw the line.
I eventually found rowing and thought I’d give it a try. It’s a full-body workout, which enticed me. There are great cardiovascular benefits (hello, endorphins!) and if performed correctly, it’s excellent for your core and legs (hello, strength!). It seemed like the best of both worlds.
Compared to the various forms of fitness that I’ve tried (and trust me, there have been many: dance cardio, kickboxing, yoga, cycling, lifting, HIIT, pilates), rowing has been strikingly beneficial for my mental health. The 45+ minutes on an erg machine completely quiets my mind.
Moving meditation is, in fact, a thing. In an active form of meditation such as rowing — or even walking — the movement guides you to form a deeper connection with your body and the present moment. Rowing is a very rhythmic sport; its repetitive motion forces the mind to focus on one task.
Gone are the worries, stressors, and anxieties of the world. Instead, focusing on form, breath, or even the rhythm of the stroke or music reduces the thoughts that often distract me from mindfulness meditation.
And breathing! Kind of important, isn’t it? To row — or exercise — efficiently, one must breathe properly. When rowing, I can increase my efficiency of the stroke and reduce my split time (think of this as a runner’s mile — it’s the time it takes you to row 500 meters; the lower, the better) if I breathe at certain times.
For example, I always aim to inhale during the recovery part of the stroke (moving toward the catch position, where shins are vertical and arms are extended) and exhale during the drive (pushing to the finish of the stroke, where legs are extended and arms/handle are brought underneath the sternum).
Connection to my breath optimizes my rowing performance. As such, I have developed a focused understanding and attention to my breathing. This in itself, according to a 2017 study, is an effective way to reduce stress and anxiety.
Aside from finding a connection to my breath and meditation — as well as improving my confidence — rowing has provided me with a wonderful and supportive community.
My strength training, though wonderful, is solitary. This doesn’t usually bother me; I enjoy the time to myself and the internal connection I have with my body. But in finding a rowing studio, I’ve found a community of people and coaches who encourage me, motivate me, and remind me of my strength, my resilience, and my capabilities.
One thing that amazes me about fitness is that it’s just as, if not more, mental than it is physical. Mind over matter, they say. Train your body, and you will train your mind. As I train my muscles, I’m simultaneously training my mind to persevere.
Fitness — be it rowing, walking, lifting, or running (ick) — reminds us that we’re capable of hard things. We’re capable of pushing ourselves to push past depression and push toward our goals.
When I’m lifting weights and my arms are shaking with fatigue, I remind myself that I am capable of another set; my arms won’t fall off. When I’m sprinting in a rowing class, and my legs are burning, my heart pounding, I remind myself that I am capable of another stroke; my legs won’t fall off, my heart won’t explode. I choose to continue.
And when I’m in a depressive episode — or having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day — I remind myself that I am capable of pushing to the other side; I choose to push through.
I’ve made it through extremely difficult rowing classes, despite that annoying voice in my head telling me I was too tired.
I also made it through a severe depressive episode 2 years ago, despite my depression telling me that it was time to let go.
We are capable of hard things, and we have more control than we realize. We simply need to get out of our own way.
Medically reviewed on October 23, 2023
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