By Orit Avni-Barron, M.D.
It can make you look and feel great. It relieves stress, anxiety and depression, makes premenstrual symptoms more tolerable and reduces hot flashes if you’re unlucky enough to have them. It will improve your body image, help you attract potential partners, keep you healthy and lower your need for medication. It can help you sleep better, boost your cognitive function and give you a buzz that is totally legal. It's the ultimate medication — but chances are you can’t find it in you to use it.
As a Harvard psychiatrist and the director of a women’s mental health service, I’ve sung the praises of physical activity for years. I’d tell my patients (male and female alike) to just get off the couch and do it. I’d tell them about the newest studies, dazzle them with facts and address any challenges they were facing to improve their chances of success. I’d be their greatest cheerleader, applauding any achievement, big or small...but not when it came to me.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]For some reason, it had been very hard for me to take my own advice.[/module]
For some reason, it had been very hard for me to take my own advice.
It’s not that I didn’t try (and I have plenty of fitness equipment lying around my house to prove it): I’d do my hula hoops every morning or hop onto the trampoline each commercial break or work on my elliptical every other day for exactly two weeks. Or, sometimes, three. But something always got in the way: I was too tired or too busy, had more important things to do or simply didn’t feel like exercising. It became this thing I’d definitely do one day. That, and learning Mandarin Chinese. Definitely. But many mañanas later, nothing had changed.
Only one day it did happen. I started exercising and haven’t stopped since.
When I sat in my office with a new patient the other day, I think I realized what took me so long.
She was referred to me for treatment of excessive anxiety. The worries have been consuming her mind, depriving her of sleep, and robbing her of the ability to enjoy her life to the fullest. Since she was too worried about taking a medication, we decided to pursue a different form of therapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — CBT for short.
We were about to get down to business when she told me about a new fitness class she recently tried as a way to relieve stress. Unfortunately, she decided to quit after her first attempt. “I was so embarrassed,” she told me. “They were all so much better than me. I’m not doing it again.” It struck a chord. Only a few weeks earlier, I'd started a similar class and, having the graceful moves of a young giraffe learning to walk, I'd had the very same feeling. Only I didn’t quit.
[module align="left" width="half" type="pull-quote"]...thoughts affect emotions, and emotions affect actions.[/module]CBT argues that thoughts affect emotions, and emotions affect actions. Simply put, argue for your limitations and they’re yours: If you think you will never be able to improve and you believe yourself, not only will you feel embarrassed, you are also not very likely to try again. Without practice, you will not improve, thereby “proving” your initial assumption that you do, indeed, suck. A new self-fulfilling prophecy will have been born.
It’s not that I persuaded myself that I was going to be the next Michael Flatley or stopped feeling self-conscious. Not by any stretch. But when I started exercising this time around, I did it for me. Because one day I really, truly wanted to feel better about myself. There were no “shoulds” involved — just a crystal clear realization that I want it.
The rest was easy. And so when the thought about humiliating myself with my uncoordinated moves entered my mind, I took it for what it was. Only a thought. I reminded myself that there were other people in the class that were not — how shall we put it — very graceful, that nobody really cared about my awkward movement but me and, above all, that from this low starting point, it could only get better.
And it has.
Dr. Orit Avni-Barron is director of the women's mental health clinic at the Fish Center for Women's Health of Brigham and Women's Hospital.
This program aired on February 6, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.