There is a widely accepted notion that exercise is the panacea for all ails that have ever existed ever. Depression, anxiety, obesity, heart disease, diabetes….the list goes on and on.
Here’s the thing: Exercise is not a cure. Don’t get that confused. I’ve tried to personally battle depression with exercise and healthy eating. I ran a half-marathon through South Korea’s demilitarized zone in the best physical condition of my life and still felt overcome by anxiety and sadness.
We can’t simply tell people with mental illness to go get some exercise. It’s very dismissive. It’s like suggesting to someone with a 40-pound bag of rocks on their back that if they bicycle uphill, the bag of rocks will disappear.
Sometimes there is no motivation to do anything!
The mere suggestion to “do” can sometimes create waves of anxiety and self-loathing.
The issue is we all want to help — and a mentally ill person (for the most part) wants that help. Exercise can be helpful. For me, the 30 minutes I’d run every day were 30 minutes that I felt like I was inherently me, free from the 40-pound bag of rocks on my back. When I was done, I had to put that bag back on, but at least for the rest of the day, I could feel like I had done something.
To those traveling with mental illness I want to say: Do what you can to make yourself happy. If it’s exercise, seek it out.
Here are my favorite exercises to do when I’m abroad and alternatives for when you’re just not in the mood to move.
This was my exercise of choice when I was living abroad for three years, and it’s great for those on shorter traveling trips as well. Running and its lower impact friend, walking, is a great way to explore the scenery around you and take in a new location in a tour that is entirely your own. Just don’t forget which streets you turned on!
What I love about these exercises is that they can be done anywhere, anytime, and for free. You just need a pair of running or walking shoes.
Exercise Alternative: Don’t feel like running or walking? Read a book! Read on the beach, in a coffee shop, in your room, lying down, sitting up! I have been transported out of my brain for hours just by taking in a piece of fiction or nonfiction. These practices help to settle your mind and get you to be completely present, if only for a moment, as you imagine the story taking place in your head.
2. Bodyweight Exercises
Bodyweight exercises are trending in the exercise community. These tough, yet effective workouts can be done just about anywhere, but I liked to do them in the privacy of my hotel room. I’m not ashamed to say that I did perform these in front of my partner when I felt the need to! No shame in getting your sweat on!
Bodyweight exercises, as the name implies, use your own body as a weight. Movements include squats, pushups, burpees, bear crawls, pull ups, and so much more. These are effective when done in a circuit and can really get you sweating!
The best thing is, you don’t have to do them for very long to start seeing results. When I was down, I would put on some really motivating music and feel like a total powerhouse going through sets of pushups and tricep dips.
Exercise Alternative: Can’t imagine lifting yourself out of a chair, let alone off the floor in pushup position? Watch TV.
I know it might be sacrilegious of me to say this, but I think that Netflix and chilling while you’re on vacation is a form of self-care. Netflix isn’t available all over the world, but here’s a trick: Get a VPN (In Korea I used Spotflux.) to disguise your IP address to make Netflix think you’re in the U.S. It’s totally legal if you have a Netflix account. You can also download the Google Chrome extension Hola and choose to have your IP address in the U.S. or in the UK, and, guys, British Netflix is NO JOKE. It’s amazing, and you should go watch it immediately.
How to do them: Think of any sprint you can do — run, climb stairs, bike really hard, swim super fast, do jumping jacks, or dance like crazy — and do that for about 60 seconds at the very, very max that you can do. Then rest for 30 seconds. Do that over and over again for 10 to 15 minutes.
Again, this can be done anywhere! I loved doing HIIT exercises because I felt like a crazy beast machine getting out all of my rage!
Exercise Alternative: Feeling more like a kitten than a beast? Unleash your creative side.
It can be very therapeutic to start a mini-project for your trip. Journal your experience when you feel like it: Add your bus tickets and extra change that you don’t use. Start a scrapbook. Draw pictures of the places and people you see.
If you’d like to keep an online account of your adventure, start a tumblr, and upload photos, videos, quotes, or images you find moving to your page.
Or, if you’re like me, and you’re really good at starting projects but never finishing them, just draw, write, or take pictures whenever you can or feel like doing it. There is no pressure to do anything on your trip other than enjoy it.
When I was feeling really low during the middle of a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, taking a break on Otres 2 Beach on the southern tip of Cambodia proved to be the mental reprieve I was looking for.
A random, long-term traveller offered free yoga classes twice a day — once at sunrise and once at sunset. Donations were optional, and I gladly gave a few dollars every time. The hour of moving through downward dog and trying to hold difficult poses while watching the sunset over the ocean truly helped to calm my mind.
Yoga has often been praised for inducing a meditative state, which slows the brain waves and helps control obsessive or anxious thoughts.
Exercise Alternative: Can’t even imagine moving through a vinyasa flow? Get your grub on. No lies and no shame: Eating is one of the best ways to discover a country, and you know what? It helps you feel better, too. Eating releases endorphins in your brain. One such endorphin is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that sends signals of happy to your whole body. Treat yourself. You’re on vacation, and you deserve to get a little boost by consuming some delicious foreign cuisine.
Exercise is not a cure for mental illness when you’re traveling, but it may help to put you in a better place, if even for a moment. Self-care is an option in a variety of forms; sometimes just acknowledging that you’ve gotten out of bed is accomplishment enough. I hope you take these suggestions to help you strive for your happiness in anyway possible that feels good TO YOU!