“Diving into things is your superpower,” Revolutionary You! Podcast Ep. #323–Dr. Lisa Lewis: Using Strength Training as Mental Health Medication

Wow! A really important topic from Jason Leenaarts and his guest this month, Dr. Lisa Lewis! I have to say, I’m really impressed with Jason’s willingness to go beyond the usual conversations about sets and reps and really dig into what I consider the far more meaningful work of health and fitness. Yes, I want to be swole, but it’s no good if I feel like shit along the way. Lifting is mental health care for me, and I suspect for so many of us, and if you missed the two episodes previous to this one, you will benefit from giving them a listen as well.

Early in the episode, Jason shares how lifting gave him the mental health boost he needed to begin recovery from drug addiction. It sounds like these experiences have led Jason to draw a similar conclusion that I have: that for many of us, when we might become addicted or hyper-focused on something destructive, we find lifting as a healthier outlet for those tendencies. I have an extensive family history of addiction and alcohol abuse, and I see it not as a coincidence that I’m drawn to bodybuilding, the lifting subculture that encourages and celebrates some of the most neurotic tendencies in the iron game.

I really appreciate that Dr. Lewis sees the strengths in these tendencies and that there can be positive elements to the ability to focus on a behavior to such a degree for extended periods of time, and her point that our bodies have built-in mechanisms that are likely to keep our exercising from doing us harm is a good one. I do wonder if this is more true for physical endeavors than it is for the dietary patterns that can come with that sort of focus. It feels that way to me. It seems to me that disordered, or at least potentially problematic, focus on our eating and nutrition seems to be higher risk. The combination of diet culture and neurotic tendencies can lead to plenty unhappiness. I’d be interested to hear Dr. Lewis’ take on the matter.

Near the end of the podcast, Dr. Lewis gives practical recommendations for how to “dose” lifting or exercise for our positive mental health. She suggests folks exercise five times a week for at least 45 minutes (although three times a week and/or for twenty minutes may be enough to begin to see positive results). She said that it needn’t be high intensity, although that may be beneficial for someone struggling with anxiety. I found this last point interesting as I have struggled periodically with running triggering my PTSD, and I’ve wondered if it was something about when/where I was running or if it was something about the running itself–raising my heartrate and breathing–that felt like a flashback and that THAT feeling was actually the thing triggering me. I still feel like I’ve got a lot to learn about living with trauma, but I will say when things are feeling more elevated for me, I don’t mind cutting my runs short for a while.

Which brings me to my final insight on this topic, and something I would love to hear Dr. Lewis and Jason riff on further–how different kinds of activities have different mental health benefits. From my own experience, I get very different benefits from lifting than I do from running. For that matter, lifting like a bro with long sets and lots of mind-muscle connection has a different feel than doing more traditional heavy strength work! I feel creative when I run. I get lots of ideas and everything seems to just flow in my mind. When I lift, I have to be more grounded in the moment and less in my head. It’s very helpful for my PTSD, and when I’m feeling heightened, lifting, or even imagining I’m lifting, can help me get grounded and prevent a flashback. I would expect folks who do other kinds of exercise could describe other benefits, too–the joys of working with a team and flowing together on a soccer field or feeling connected to the rhythm while performing a complicated dance.

As a person who experiences some physical disabilities and used to have obesity and believed that moving her body would never feel good, I have been amazed to realize the many benefits to becoming an active person. It has been truly transformative for me, and the most important changes are not in my pants size. My brain works better when I regularly push myself physically. I’m a nicer person, a better spouse, and more at peace. I really appreciate Dr. Lewis and Jason broaching this subject, and I hope to hear more conversations on this important topic!

Revolutionary You Podcast 323

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