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How To Make Your Mental Health Your Workout Motivation, According To Experts

If COVID has messed with your reasons for working out, here’s how to recenter.

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Among all the invocations to exercise for the sake of your "summer arms" or "beach body," it's rare for someone to say, "let's work out because it'll help your brain feel better." (For the record, if you have a body and you're at the beach, you have a beach body.) In pandemic times, you might hear this couched as working out to "lose the quarantine 15" — but what if, instead, you worked out to deal with the unprecedented level of stress that comes with the year 2020?

"When we hear so much about getting into 'quarantine shape,' it's been a challenge for me — and I'm sure I'm not alone — as someone who's struggled with disordered eating and exercise in the past to keep my priorities straight with movement," says Helen Phelan, a Pilates instructor and founder of Helen Phelan Studio, which offers online fitness classes emphasizing body neutrality and mindfulness. "It feels really amazing to move your body when you've been stuck in a tiny apartment all day, and can radically shift my mood and bring me back to earth if I'm headed towards a quarantine spiral from all the doom-scrolling on social media," Phelan tells Bustle.

Quarantine Has Changed Our Minds & Bodies

Most people are experiencing changes in how their bodies look and feel because of quarantine, says Bianca Russo, a certified personal trainer and founder of virtual fitness service Body Positive Bootcamp. Those shifts can make you feel even more disconnected from your body. Reminding yourself that your body is different because circumstances are different can help re-center you.

"It's difficult to not experience body changes when we can't go anywhere or do anything," Russo says. "Quarantine has made movement less prevalent in my lifestyle. I must now be even more intentional about moving my body and getting exercise, whereas previously, during my walking commute for instance, exercise was built into my daily routine."

The pandemic also means that a lot of every day mental health resources are unavailable. "Being quarantined means fewer resources for mental health are available for many people: hugging your friends, in-person social interactions, playing sports, in many areas even going for a walk outside is not possible," says Peter Just, Ph.D., lead personal trainer at Freeletics, a digital training app. Exercise is even more important when you don't have IRL ways to improve your mental health with your body, Just tells Bustle. Instead of forcing yourself to exercise because you think you and your body will be "bad" if you don't, try getting in a sweat session to sync back up with yourself. You probably can't go give your best friend a huge hug yet, but you can reestablish some of that physical intimacy with yourself through your workouts.

Use Exercise To Stay Present

The body feels the physical effects of stress and trauma in everything from tightened hips and shoulders to gaps in memory. Because stress levels are so high right now — between the pandemic, heightened attention on anti-black violence, and so much else — exercise can be a key tool to bring you back to your body. Think about using exercise not to get control over how your body has changed in quarantine, but to help yourself work through pandemic-related stress. "As someone who has experienced PTSD with dissociation from her body in the past — the biggest mental motivator for working out for me is getting back into my body," Phelan says.

Tune in and ask yourself why your body is feeling so unsettled if you feel different than usual. "Ask yourself how you are feeling and what your body needs at that moment," Just says. "Sometimes your body needs to sweat it out during a tough HIIT session or long run, and other times your body will require less physical grit and you should simply go for a walk or listen to a meditation session instead." Addressing these questions can go a long way toward bringing you back into your body when you're feeling especially stressed.

Find The Line Between Exercise Helping & Hurting Your Mental Health

It's important to figure out why you're trying to talk yourself into doing that Zoom kickboxing class today. Are you working out to soothe your anxiety, or because you're feeling anxious about not exercising?

"Knowing where the line is between finding intrinsic motivation out of self-care and nourishment versus motivation from rigidity and punishment is not always easy," Phelan tells Bustle. "Even if your initial urge to workout came from a negative place, if you can dial it back and take a moment to find another reason that is in actual service of your holistic health, then that's a win."

It can be a long trial-and-error process to figure out when pushing yourself will help you feel better, and when it will only cause you more pain. Checking in with your energy levels can give you a good starting point, Russo says. "I ask myself, what can I realistically do right now? If my energy is just too low and I know I'm going to be trudging through the workout because I feel ill, then I'll be gracious with myself and delete that calendar event." Extend the same compassion and grace to yourself as you would to a friend, and you'll be off on the right track.

Use Working Out To Help You Think Kinder Thoughts About Yourself

It's not just about breaking a sweat — if you approach it as mental exercise, even the toughest weightlifting session can be a great practice in mindfulness. There is no magical way to suddenly have an affirming relationship with your body, of course, but Russo says it's important to surround yourself (online and IRL) with a genuinely supportive fitness community.

That external validation can help you practice internal affirmations, especially when you use your workout to help cultivate a self-loving mindset. "If a negative thought comes up about exercise, I let myself feel it, then remind myself three positive non-aesthetic qualities in myself," Phelan says. "Or, I use affirmations to help reinforce that my sense of worth should lie in who I am, not what my body looks like."

Of course, Just says, even a workout with the most validating Zoom yoga instructor of all time is no substitute for working with a mental health professional. Combining therapy with affirming, mindset-oriented workouts is an important strategy for practicing kinder self-talk. As simple as it may sound, being nicer to yourself can give you so much extra oomph to combat the quarantine blues.


Helen Phelan, founder of Helen Phelan Studio

Bianca Russo, certified personal trainer, founder of Body Positive Bootcamp

Peter Just, Ph.D., lead personal trainer at Freeletics