You wouldn’t know it from looking at me, but I actually go the gym four to five times a week. And I know what you’re thinking… “Man, you should really demand a refund.”
I joined the LA Fitness in my neighborhood many, many years ago with grandiose dreams. I was hoping to go from chubby to Channing Tatum in about six weeks. I could feel a six pack just lurking underneath the surface of the five or six Frisch’s Big Boys I ate every week. I planned to put in a few hours at the treadmill each week, a little bit of time throwing some weights around and grunting, and before you’d know it I would have to buy all new shirts because my biceps would tear holes in the old ones.
In what is an inexplicable physical anomaly, I can guarantee you that my muscles haven’t even come close to warranting a new wardrobe. Oftentimes, I find myself embarrassingly being outlifted by nearly everyone in the gym, including one hilariously painful endeavor where I dislocated a rib doing dumbbell flys with…well, not much weight. I’ve blacked out on treadmills, slipped from pull up bars, skipped nearly every leg day, and taken it upon myself to provide a nightly comedic act for the other patrons of LA Fitness.
But since Dad died, I don’t go to the gym for the same reasons I used to. Don’t get me wrong—if God wants to bless me with a Herculean physique, I’ll be grateful and gladly accepting of this gift. But if that doesn’t happen (and let me assure you, it really will take a miracle of God), I’ll still keep at it because there’s more at stake than muscle.
After Dad died, I knew that I would need to take some time off from work and my usual routine to get some clarity on the entire situation. I ended up being away from work for about four weeks, which was a blessing that I’ll always be thankful for. My supervisors at Miami made it possible for me to take all the time I needed to recollect and regroup before I got back into my new normal, and I did my best to heed the advice of so many others I had talked to about grief when they told me “Don’t try and rush things.”
The unintended consequence of all this time off, however, was that it gave me more time to sit and think about everything that had happened. As people started to return to the routine of their own lives, I began to have more and more time to myself. And for someone who can easily get lost in the drama and intensity of my own thoughts, this wasn’t always a good thing.
So, by week two I knew that I was going to have to start filling my time with things that were more productive and would occupy both my schedule and my mind. Summer was nearing its end, which gave me plenty of options. I could attend baseball games, or go to the movies, or visit the park and spend some time outdoors.
“Or,” I thought one morning, “I could start going to the gym again.”
Because things had been so busy earlier that summer, the gym had become more of an inconvenience than an opportunity for stress release. Every night, I found myself coming home and reading and working on assignments, so the gym just wasn’t an option on a regular basis.
So to try and get my mind off of all the trauma it had experienced, I promised myself I would go to the gym every day I could. I would show up for a few hours each day and do my best to get active. Instead of obsessing over the tragedy that had occurred, I would go there and challenge my mind instead.
I’m not going to tell you anything new that you haven’t heard from the fitness addicts in your own life, but it’s another voice to add to the chorus: When I went to the gym, I felt better. It was hard to explain because I didn’t know how to feel better having just lost my Dad so suddenly and unexpectedly, but my body and my mind felt better during those hours at the gym than trapping myself in the solitude and emptiness of my house.
A few months later, I would get some clarity on why I felt so much better. I had the privilege of joining my mentor and friend, Dr. Bob Rusbosin, and a few Miami undergraduates for a research presentation at a conference at Florida State University. The conference was on college student values and the concept of wellness, and we submitted a presentation on the research we had been doing on television icon Fred Rogers. As I perused the conference booklet, I noticed an interesting keynote that would take place later in the week. A psychiatrist and M.D. from Harvard, Dr. John Ratey, would be speaking about wellness and health from a medical doctor’s standpoint.
Dr. Ratey is the author of a book called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science Exercise and the Brain (visit the “Library” section of this page for a description and link). At about 9am midway through the conference week, Dr. Ratey engaged in a heavily scientific explanation using phrases related to brain anatomy, neurotransmitters, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, and a million other scientific terms and processes that were completely foreign for this particular audience member.
And I was completely and utterly fascinated.
Dr. Ratey says it much more intelligently than I ever could, but the premise of his argument is this: physical exercise benefits the brain just as much as it does the rest of the body.
And for my particular life situation, Dr. Ratey gave an explanation that really hit home—that physical fitness could lead to the prevention of mental illness like depression, thereby also diminishing the likelihood of suicide.
The introduction to Dr. Ratey’s book says it all. It’s a quote from Plato that reads “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.”
Let me give you the best explanation I can of the research Dr. Ratey has done (please keep your author in mind, as there have been episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy that have tripped me up before). And forgive me for the technical description, but please understand–this disease killed my Father. I want to know everything I can about it so I can prevent it from happening to anyone else.
Brain signals are sent via neurotransmitters, or chemicals that send messages from one brain cell to another. Psychiatry has identified three primary brain transmitters that regulate everything the brain does: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. When the levels of these neurotransmitters are unbalanced, mental illnesses can occur. Most medications target one or two of these neurotransmitters, but exercise has a different effect. Exercise and physical activity actually have the capacity to elevate and regulate all three of these neurotransmitters simultaneously. Exercise also increases the presence of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (or BDNF), a crucial protein that can help our brains maintain and create healthy neurons. Dr. Ratey calls BDNF “Miracle-Gro for the brain” (I’ll reiterate, he explains this all much better than I ever could, and I would really encourage you to grab his book).
Here’s what all this talk of neurotransmitters and brain chemicals equates to:
- Exercise helps our cognitive functioning and ability to learn
- Exercise can help us relieve stress
- Exercise can be an effective in the prevention or treatment of mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and attention deficit (or can help in conjunction with other treatments)
- Exercise can change the way our brains react to addiction
- Exercise can help fight off brain-related aging diseases, like Alzheimer’s
Even though there were many factors at work in my Dad’s death, and even though he still had many more years to live, I constantly remind myself that my Dad fought successfully against this demon for decades of his life. I can’t help but think that the extremely complex concepts Dr. Ratey so beautifully articulated were playing out behind the scenes of my Dad’s own brain chemistry, helping him fight off his own periods of darkness for many, many years.
Although he didn’t do a very good job of passing the athletic genes on to his only son, my Dad was often the epitome of an active lifestyle.
My Dad was always an extremely energetic and “on the move” type guy. He was the Father who never got burdened by his son asking if they could go outside and play together—because he was usually the one doing the asking.
“Hey boy, you want to go for a bike ride?” was his common refrain after our family dinners. My Dad loved riding his bike. My family was fortunate enough to live close to a beautiful local park, and my Dad loved riding his bike back through the woods and the trails on a warm summer night. Much more adventurous than me, Dad would fly through the trails on his 21-speed mountain bike, never allowing fear to outweigh his desire to have fun.
Summer nights after dinner were always full of some kind of physical activity, even on days where I knew Dad was tired from a long day at work. Tossing a baseball, swimming in our backyard pool, or taking our family dog for a walk—Dad always found a way to get up off the couch and get moving. But more important than the movement was the smile on his face the entire time.
And Dad, a man who loved people, usually found a way to stay moving in the company of others. For as long as I could remember, my Dad had always played weekly pick-up basketball games with the guys from our church. He loved the competition, and he definitely loved showing the younger players a thing or two as he’d easily outsmart them as he cut to the rim for bucket after bucket.
A true renaissance athlete, Dad was also a tremendous softball player—in fact, the best season I ever saw him play was cut short by his own untimely death. He never hit for power. Actually, in all the years he played softball (over 30), he never hit a single home run (the critical sports announcer in me always reminded him of this weakness). But he was fast, and that gave him an advantage at any church softball league where most of the players had partaken in far too many Sunday potlucks. He could cover ground in the outfield better than anyone. He could turn a lazy single into a double, and usually a triple if the fielder had a poor arm. He would play any position he could, and could usually do it with ease. I was always in awe of his contributions to the team and the seamless ease with which he performed.
Unlike me, my Dad’s mind seemed to clear when he was playing a sport. If you aren’t familiar with my lack of athletic prowess, read….well, pretty much any other post I’ve ever written. Everything just seemed to click when my Dad was active—life was in harmony, completely balanced. He found happiness in the activity, and joy in the camaraderie.
When Dad was happiest, he never wanted to sit still. I was just never sure whether the happiness caused the activity, or the activity caused the happiness. And because I now know how happiness and being active were so intricately intertwined in my Dad’s life, I’ll try and do the same.
Every day, I do at least 23 pushups. I do them with strained effort, and probably incorrect form, but I make sure I do those 23 pushups. The 23 reps are not a random number—there’s a method to my madness.
At one time in this country, it was reported that 22 veterans of the United States Military (particularly the most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) were victims of suicide. This led to the creation of great military support organizations, like Mission 22, which provide resources and support for veterans struggling with mental illness. Recent numbers have shown the number is probably closer to 20, but even if the number was 1, it would be entirely too high.
I added that last pushup in for my Dad. No, my Dad was not a veteran, but mental illness is the enemy we all fight against, service member or not. Military family or not, anyone who loses a family member or loved one to suicide suffers a similar heartache when those we love leave us earlier than they should. When I do those 23 pushups, I’m simultaneously honoring the people that suicide touches and making sure that it never ever impacts my life in the same way it has theirs.
I’m very aware of my need to go to the gym, because I know that every time I step foot on a treadmill or lift a weight, I’m fighting back against the same depression and anxiety that took my Dad away from me. People say that depression and mental illness are so difficult to fight against because they are invisible—and I agree with this claim. But the things we can do to fight against these unseen enemies are often very visible, and very tangible. Staying active is just one of the many tools I’ll use to fight back against the darkness.
I’ve also found that going to the gym allows me to work through my grief. I’ve made great friends at the gym, Godly men who have listened to my pain and helped me work through it. There have been days where instead of lifting, we’ve stood near a machine together and talked about our lives and how God loves us in spite of our circumstances. I have been able to share things with my friends at the gym and connect with them on a brotherly level that I never would have been able to articulate in any other environment. In the same way that a therapy session clears my brain, I’ve found the same peace and sense of calm after spending a few hours at the gym with my friends.
There are plenty of days where I just don’t feel like going to the gym—and my body is probably a reflection of giving in to that impulse for far too long. But the fact that I don’t feel like going to the gym is exactly why I need to go. As Dr. Ratey has found, every time I choose activity over laziness, I’m boosting my brain’s capability to fire on all cylinders. I’m re-wiring my brain to choose action of victim-hood, bravery over surrender.
Don’t confuse what I’m saying—if you are suffering from mental illness or suicidal thoughts, a 15 minute sprint on a treadmill alone might not save your life. You should still seek treatment on all fronts, including medical or psychiatric care. You should still seek professional help. You should still talk to someone who can help you in your fight. But physical activity is one “tool in the toolbox” that can help in that fight, and combined with other forms of treatment, it can be a very powerful remedy.
Whether grieving from a loss or trying to prevent your own mental illness, exercise and physical activity can play an unbelievable role in the road to recovery. No matter how pathetic my physique might appear, I’ll always be a staunch advocate that those dealing with mental illness or those fighting through grief should try and find relief by getting up and getting going.
And if all that activity and brain boosting just happens to lead to six pack abs along the way…even better.
Dad, I always admired your energy and vitality. You attacked life and took on new challenges, and you were never that Dad who loved the couch more than he loved spending time with his family. In your life, you always seemed to be able to find a good balance between rest and being active, but when you were active, you always made the most of it and there was always a huge smile on your face. Whether it was riding bikes, walking the dog, playing softball, schooling a bunch of youngsters in basketball, or simply goofing around in the backyard swimming pool, you realized that life was designed to be lived. Even though I didn’t always listen (and boy do I wish I would have), you always encouraged me to get up and get going. You always encouraged me to believe there was life outside of a TV set or computer screen, and since you left I’ve tried to live this out. I’m looking forward to many bike rides together on the other side of Eternity. And if you could talk to the Big Guy upstairs and have him send me a little more muscle mass, I’d be appreciative. Until then, seeya Bub.
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” Romans 12:1 (NIV)