Exercise is Not Your Therapy by Gabriel Villarreal

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Exercise is not Your Therapy

by Gabriel Villareal

Let’s paint a picture.

You have a supportive family, a great job, and a workout program that’s getting you personal records’ weekly. But life still gets in the way and some days are harder than others, “normal” right?

You get in fight with your significant other, luckily you have a gym session coming up and it’s all you can think about. You arrive at the gym, the music is bumping, and the class is primed for action. You grab the barbell and it’s time to get to work. After you’re drenched in sweat and the issues of the past few hours are quiet or maybe non-existent. You realize the gym session “cured” your emotional deregulation and think to yourself, “Who would ever pay a counselor or a therapist when I have a gym!?”

Later that evening you’re at home scrolling through your instagram or facebook feed and see a picture of a barbell and a squat rack with the caption “therapy”. You decide to repost it because your issues dissolved as if from the sweat you poured out during your own session with the barbell that afternoon.

These type of posts made me curious as to the idea behind the gym as “therapy” for people and in turn what it means to someone like me who is an actual therapist. I’ve already written two articles for Mash Elite on mental health with my expertise on coaching, counseling, and the bridge between the two. I own Mash Affiliate “LostBoys Strength & Conditioning” as well as my private practice “ADHD Counseling in the Roanoke Valley”.

Today, we’ll break down the deeper meaning of what’s going on with the “gym/therapy” mentality and find a more productive and helpful way to view this point of view so many have adopted.
To start let’s look at what therapy/counseling truly is:
“The application of mental health, psychological, or human development principles, through cognitive, affective, behavioral or systematic intervention strategies, that address wellness, personal growth, or career development, as well as pathology.” , from the American Counseling Association.

This definition hits on what really makes up therapy, so let’s keep that definition in mind and discuss what people are really feeling before, during , and after exercise.

It would seem a lot of people are feeling a release of emotion when lifting or exercising when they bring their “stuff” to the gym. What follows is the release of dopamine and norepinephrine during and after exercise that was touched on in my earlier posts this month. Individuals bring their feelings or issues to the gym and exercise with that in their minds. While working out these feelings subside and are quieted. However, they have not been resolved. When you have an argument with your significant other and go squat a 10RM, your significant other does not forget what happened just because you “worked it out” at the gym. Herein lies the issue with this mentality of taking your issues with you to the gym. You’re not addressing your wellness or personal growth in terms of a pathology or diagnosis or in any constructive manner; no progress is being made toward your mental wellbeing. At this point you are purely coping with the issues at hand. Given the severity of your “stuff” coping may be enough. Looking back to my article on ADHD and exercise for the ADHDer, exercise is preemptively addressing the symptoms of ADHD and thus is coping before the ADHD becomes unmanaged throughout the day. This is crucial for the individual with ADHD. Exercising as a means to cope for an anxiety disorder, severe depression or abuse, or relationship issues is ultimately a Band-Aid to the larger problem at hand. The example given above shows no progress into building improved communication, you’re handling the argument alone at the gym, not with your significant other who was involved. There is no addressing the relationship from where the issues stem or any personal growth of wanting to have a stronger and healthier relationship. It becomes an escape from the problem rather than a solution.

So does this explanation fit our definition of therapy? Absolutely not, it fits more closely with the definition of catharsis.

Catharsis is defined as the “process of releasing and relieving the individual from strong repressed emotions”. However, the subject of time is not mentioned in the definition, which means these emotions can be bubbling at the surface or just risen due to an incident. For the purposes of this article let’s assume time is acute, not chronic.
Naturally one may reiterate the example from above: He or she gets into an argument with their significant other right before they leave for the gym, and it is not resolved. When they come home their passions and feelings of being misheard or misunderstood have subsided and they are better able to address the issue in this state of mind. Agreed; lifting has helped in the process of removing the feelings from the incident, but it does not fit our definition of therapy, as the issue was not resolved because of the lifting. It’s still catharsis in the end. That’s not to say it’s bad or it’s not right. Catharsis in and of itself can be very therapeutic when used by counselors and therapists to alleviate repressed or guarded emotions.

Now that we have defined what really is going on and corrected the definition of “therapy” we’ve realized it aligns more heavily with “catharsis”.

Let’s move on and examine what else is going on during and after exercise.

What is being reported by people during and after they exercise? The literature is telling us that exercise (specifically, running because it’s the only mode that is being tested as of late) reduces the symptomatology of many clinical disorders, not limited to: anxiety, depression, panic attacks, ADHD, PTSD, addiction, Alzheimer’s, to universal issues like stress and aging. Based on this information, the question about exercise then becomes: the side effects and benefits are more synonymous with what?


Medication is prescribed to alter our state of mind and to correct our brain chemistry for our moods and thought processes. All of the aforementioned diagnoses have been researched and it has been reported that exercise does similar things without any of side effects caused from medications. Does that mean that medication is bad, absolutely not! Individuals who experience mental health issues and who want improve their life do so with greater speed and longevity when they combine medication with exercise and psychotherapy or counseling. So, now that we are viewing exercise, medication, and mental health through this lens what else can we do to optimize our mental health given these new definitions; how can we best help ourselves run optimally?

We land ourselves back to my last article I posted on the comorbidity of overweight/obesity and mental illness. In those articles we established that the likelihood of having a diagnosable mental health disorder is good; nearly 50% across the lifespan. Obviously the natural inclination for most people is to take preventative action to limit the likelihood they and their families develop a mental health disorder.

What does this preventative prescription look like? Simply put, it looks like everything you’ve heard before: a consistent exercise regime to bolster the brain’s ability to regulate and cope during stressful events and times. We can use exercise as a medication prescription, if a disorder has already been given, on top of any medical prescriptions prescribed by your doctor. Coupling exercise with proper nutrition, regular medical check-ups, and regular counseling appointments can help to truly improve your overall well-being.

This last one may sound like something new to the majority of people, but hear me out; counseling appointments do need not be weekly or even monthly for the well-adjusted individual with no history of mental illness. It may be worth using quarterly counseling appointments as a barometer for your mental health to ensure you are operating at your best. These can assist in establishing insights into your lifestyle and mental health, as well as having an unbiased opinion into your mental health history across the lifespan.

All of these are simple and preventative measures one can take in an effort to truly stay optimized and in mitigating any “illnesses” of any kind.

About the Author:
Gabriel Villarreal is a the owner of Mash Elite Affiliate “LostBoys Strength and Conditioning” in Roanoke, VA. Additionally, he owns his private practice “ADHD Counseling in the Roanoke Valley” where he is a Resident in Counseling. Lastly, he co-hosts a podcast “Informed Consent” about community mental health to support incoming professionals.

If you’d like to learn more about anything you read above Gabriel would be more than happy to answer an questions, concerns or just to continue this conversation. Feel free to email him at Gabriel@roanokeADHD.com

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