Jo Bauer, ARNP, FNP-C, and Tiny Habits certified coach, joins us this week with an in-depth discussion of exercise and LGBTQ+ mental health.
Exercise can be a troublesome subject, and for good reason. It is used to create guilt and misery on a regular basis. Sometimes by well-meaning health care providers. And sometimes by not well-meaning salespeople at the gym. (Really? You’re going to measure my waist as part of the tour?)
The tragedy of this is not only that people feel awful, but also that we think the only benefits of exercise are slimming down and buffing up. So people who find those goals inaccessible – or just plain aren’t interested – figure exercise isn’t for them. The truth is our bodies evolved to move, so every organ depends on physical activity to stay healthy. That includes all the organs involved in protecting and healing our mental health.
Physical activity can be an emotionally complicated subject.
For a lot of reasons!
We struggle to find time, the gym is closed or too expensive or too far away, our bodies hurt, and we don’t really even know what we’d do at a gym if we found one. Some of us figure if we never run a marathon there’s no point.
Some people feel safer in bigger bodies and can’t risk losing weight. There are a ton of reasons for LGBTQ+ people to avoid locker rooms, ranging from discomfort to serious personal safety issues. The same goes for exercising in public. On the flip side, people struggling with a body that doesn’t fit, or a world that feels out of control, may have over-exercised to the point of self-injury. And then it can feel dicey to try again, even from a healthier mindset.
My patients have told me about the misery of chests that move in the wrong way, or breathing and sweating and moving in gaffs and binders. And finding clothes that fit and aren’t weirdly and wrongly gendered is a whole can of worms. (Even sometimes for cis people. Why am I forced to buy pink and purple running shoes?)
What I’m saying here is that yeah, movement is complicated. I’m not going to tell you to do it without acknowledging that fact. And yet, it makes a huge difference to your whole body.
There is evidence for improvements in sleep, blood sugar, blood pressure, headaches, stomach aches, period symptoms, and immune function. Exercise reduces the risk of some cancers, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s. That’s powerful stuff.
So what are these mental health benefits of movement?
Research has shown that movement of any kind, but especially aerobic exercise, helps improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and ADHD. (Aerobic exercise is the kind where you get out of breath, but you don’t immediately feel like you’re going to die.) Don’t measure your pulse or pay for a fancy heart rate monitor. For most people, if you can talk but not sing while you’re doing it, you’re good.
That said, all exercise is good for you. Anything that’s good for the rest of your body will help your mind, because mental health doesn’t just come from your brain. Our organ systems are connected in ways modern medicine doesn’t yet understand. Exercise also supports sleep, and you know your mental health doesn’t get better after a night of insomnia. Or years of it.
We know that exercise helps manage stress, and stress is a trigger for bipolar and schizophrenic breakdowns. It’s hard to find an illness in the mental health world that doesn’t get better with moving your body.
The Latest Trends - Don’t Worry About Them!
Exercise science is interesting, but much like nutrition science will make you feel crazy if you try to follow the latest findings. Much like which superfood is magical changes every six months, exercise trends come and go. The important thing to know is that vegetables are good for you. Eat them. Movement is good for you. Do it. Whatever way feels comfortable (and fun!) is the right way for you.
Some powerful benefits of physical activity are harder to study.
Deciding to move can be empowering. For those of us with bodies that society deems less valuable, caring for them is a tiny revolution. When people from marginalized communities care for themselves, it’s like giving a big middle finger to the world. Of this, I am a fan.
All bodies deserve care.
Even if part of that care is getting ready for surgery to change the outside, exercise helps people heal better by improving circulation.
You don’t need to be told about the super high rates of trauma that LGBTQ+ people experience, and gender diverse people in particular. And if you’re a person of color too, oof, forget it. Sometimes I think I should just hand over my adrenal glands and call it a day. Marginalization is incredibly hard on the mental and also the physical body.
I can’t even with how dumb our culture can be about gender. No one has time to deal emotionally with all of the microaggressions, but they add up. Some of us get so used to the world being unfair that we don’t notice our feelings until we’re angrily lashing out or panicking. A regular movement routine is a way to intervene earlier in the stress cycle. It gives us power to heal before it all builds up and hurts us even more.
Let’s talk about how animals deal with stress. Have you ever noticed how a dog will shake off after a tense moment? Or that they run around in circles after having to restrain themselves from temptation? I’ve watched horses and cats do it too.
The problem with humans is that we think our way out of shaking it off. We tell ourselves we’re fine, or this time it wasn’t that bad, or we should prioritize someone else. It’s also not socially acceptable to run in circles or dance around at the bank after you’ve been mansplained or misgendered. We’re not supposed to fight, we’re not supposed to flight, and it’s even frowned upon to freeze.
All the challenges of the day, the week, the years just sit in our bodies without having an outlet. It’s not a coincidence that rates of substance use disorders are higher among LGBTQ+ people than the general population. We turn to numbing ourselves for relief, which may be fantastic in the short term but makes things worse in the long run.
If we don’t feel our feelings, we never process trauma, and then we’re stuck feeling anxious and depressed and miserable forever.
There is evidence that yoga is more powerful for PTSD than medication. (It doesn’t hurt to do both if that’s what works.)
Trauma disconnects us from our bodies, but movement, especially mindful movement, reconnects us. People who are connected to their bodies hold the space around them differently.
You deserve to own your space.
And that’s something no one else, and no medication, can do for you.
You have control over movement. You don’t have to wait for me to prescribe it for you, you aren’t going to run out of refills. You can choose to feel a little better today, and then you can make it happen. That choice is powerful. Especially in a world where so many things are outside of our control.
So how can you make it happen?
1. Pick something you actually want to do that feels accessible. Not what you think you should do, or what you wish you could do. A dance party, online yoga, stretching, and planks can all be done at home. Walk if you have a safe place.
2. Shrink that movement habit down to something that takes less than a minute.
3. Pick something you do most days of the week and do your habit afterward.
4. If you have more time and energy, you can do your movement longer, but if you don’t that’s okay. You’re still bookmarking that time in your day so it becomes automatic.
5. Most importantly, every time you do your habit, celebrate somehow! Pat yourself on the back, literally. Or do a little dance.
6. I’ve just run you through a very simplified version of Tiny Habits! I practice this method with my clients – here’s my take on the method. Another resource is this TedX talk by the creator of Tiny Habits.
You can take back control of your mental health. Little by little With movement.
Jo Bauer, ARNP, FNP-C, Tiny Habits Certified Coach, (she/her,) is a nurse practitioner with years of experience in primary care. she has worked extensively in gender affirming care, psychiatry, and preventive medicine. It has been her honor to help people from marginalized communities feel a little safer and more comfortable in health care.
Jo provides evidence-based health and wellness habit coaching and psychiatric prescribing at Steel & Flora Wellness.
Thank you for spending some time with us during our fitness/movement for trans and queer folx series. Last week’s blog was about redefining exercise and building inclusive spaces. Next week, we’re planning on talking about cardiovascular fitness.