I signed up for The Knot. That was my first mistake. But days after getting engaged, I realized I had no idea how to put together a wedding — even a small, frill-free, relatively low-key wedding — and The Knot did. It was the wedding-planning website, and best of all, it had a checklist, telling me exactly what to do and by what time: When to send the invites, when to order the dress, and oh right, to make a Plan B in case of bad weather. I figured I could skip past the nonsense articles (“7 Ways To Dress Your Wedding Dog”?) and get straight to business with the checklist. But, no dice. The nonsense was waiting for me, right there toward the top of it: “Make A Fitness Plan.”
Now, I’m an out-and-proud fan of fitness. While I used to have a toxic, all-or-nothing attitude toward it, I’ve been exercising regularly, both in and out of the gym, for almost four years. Learning how to work out in a consistent, balanced, not-crazy way has improved my life in many ways, and my physical health is just one of them. It also plays a role in keeping me a balanced, not-crazy person. But The Knot was clearly not concerned with my mental health when it suggested that “now is a great time to get a fitness routine going.” It assumed, as did most bridal guides, dress boutiques, and anyone who noticed my engagement ring, that I was planning to start “sweating for the wedding” ASAP. In fact, I already was — but not so that I could “weigh less for the dress.”
Wedding weight-loss is not a new concept, but right now there seems to be a growing faction of the fitness industry specifically targeting engaged women. Bridal bootcamps and pre-wedding packages lure them in with these curious rhyme-based hooks: “Slim down for the gown,” “get hot before tying the knot,” “run mile after mile before walking down the aisle” — I could add more, but I’ll barf on the floor. I understand the desire to look awesome on your wedding day, but for me, that doesn’t mean becoming the thinnest possible version of myself. I no longer focus on weight loss, period, but even if I did, I can’t imagine a worse time to start that crazy-making process than in the midst of wedding planning. I have plenty of crazy on my plate, thankyouverymuch. Still, exercise has become even more important to me these past few months. And I would encourage every bride-to-be to hit the gym on a regular basis — not to get thin, but to stay sane.
Perhaps you’ve heard, but weddings are stressful. In other breaking news, exercise is a super effective form of stress relief. While that's a generally accepted fact, that particular perk doesn’t get a lot of airtime in today’s mainstream fitness culture, which is almost entirely focused on appearance. It wasn’t until I went through a period of heightened stress that I truly understood just how great an impact exercise could have on my body and brain.
Quick story: Two years ago, I found myself juggling a full-time job with my first book and its rapidly approaching deadline. Then my best friend got cancer (arguably more stressful for him — but you can read more about that in his essay). Every day felt like an emergency, and the idea of squeezing in a workout seemed both impossible and frivolous. But on those days when I woke up before dawn, too anxious to sleep but too fried to work, I would grab a sports bra from the pile of unfolded laundry on the floor and stumble over to the gym. An hour or so later, I would leave, still anxious and tired, but somehow better. The volume on that noise in my brain had been turned down, and now I could think. My feet felt more grounded with each step, and my heart was simply beating instead of pounding. It was as if my body had been filled up with the wrong kind of gas — a speedy, neon substance that fueled only panic — and now, at last, it had been siphoned off.
I already knew that exercise was supposed to flood you with endorphins and fill you up with good feelings. But only then did I discover that it could also drain away the bad.
“There’s only so much you can ruminate on when you're struggling to catch your breath,” says Lara Fielding, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in California. That’s just one reason that exercise is such an effective form of stress relief. And it’s why exercise is, once again, not just a priority, but an essential to-do on my pre-wedding checklist. As a specialist in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapies, Dr. Fielding has also spent time researching the relationship between health behaviors (like exercise) and the psycho-physiological effects of stress. Why is exercise so relieving? “As always,” she says, “there's both a biological and a psychological reason.”
“When you do cardiovascular exercise,” she says, “you raise the threshold of reactivity to a social stressor. In other words, if I'm jogging three to five times a week and getting my heart rate up, then it's actually creating flexibility in my system, so that when I get stressed from a social stressor” — like an important meeting at work, an intimidating party, or, say, a wedding-dress fitting — “I won't go straight to panic.”
Exercise can also help regulate cortisol — everyone’s favorite stress hormone. This fitness factoid gets a lot of attention, but, Dr. Fielding adds, it’s not as simple as more exercise equals less cortisol. “Exercise is also a stressor on your body,” she says. You release a certain amount of cortisol when you work out. And, when you do it consistently and appropriately, as in the example above, you gradually raise your body’s tolerance. But, as with most substances, the dose makes the poison. If you go too hard, for too long, too frequently, “you’re causing too much cortisol,” says Dr. Fielding. “And that causes a depressive reaction.” That’s why moderating your exercise is just as important as the exercise itself, she adds. When it comes to the mood-improving effects of exercise, she says, the ideal amount is, “three to five times a week, 20-30 minutes of cardio, at 70% of your maximum capacity.” Of course, no one but you can really gauge what your maximum capacity is. That’s why, says Dr. Fielding, “‘Know thyself’ is always the first step.”
And that means mindfulness — not to be confused with overthinking. A lot of us, myself included, look forward to the mental break that comes with a workout, when you plug in your headphones and just move. But carving out some time for mindful check-ins really helps make for the most feel-good workout. Luckily, there’s a shortcut: Your breath.
“It's the one thing that can automatically bring you out of your mind into the present moment,” says Michael Gervais. A trainer and yoga instructor with Equinox, Gervais created HeadStrong, a class designed to maximize the mind-body connection in a workout. It incorporates high-intensity segments with guided breathwork and mindful movements, emphasizing sensory awareness and staying absolutely present. “The class itself is really about being able to simulate the soothing part [of exercise]. So, it's not just amp, amp, amp, goodbye.”
Both he and Dr. Fielding agree that breath is a key element to stress relief in exercise. In any workout, Gervais says, “as much as you can, bring attention to your breath.” Doing so can help you recognize just what a huge impact this alone has on your mental and physical state. (“Just FYI,” Dr. Fielding says, “when you have a longer exhale than an inhale, you lower your heart rate.” I keep that in mind both in and out of the gym.) But simply pausing to notice your breath is a fast, easy way to keep you out of your head and in the room. Sometimes in class, Gervais adds, he’ll start by directing attention to the breath, then have students focus on a body part. “[I’ll say] ‘bring your attention down to your right heel, and feel that. Then feel the ground supporting your right calf,” and so on. He says doing these body scans “helps your brain to tune out the noise and then figure out the important information.” In that moment, the important information isn’t the theoretically worries in your head, but simply what’s going on in the room and in your body.
All these meditative and scientific factors really boil down to two things: fight-or-flight vs. rest-and-digest. (There is no escaping the rhymes.)
The fight-or-flight response is a result of the sympathetic nervous system. It’s what makes your heart race, your palms sweat, and your lungs start taking in quick and shallow breaths when you’re feeling anxiety. This is an awesome stress response when you have to literally fight or flee for your life. It’s not so helpful though, when you’re hyperventilating over a guest list. Sadly, there is no semi-sympathetic nervous system that tells your body this guest list is not actually a predator coming to eat you alive, and you can neither run from it nor beat it into submission.
But exercise can help mitigate this response in the long term (that’s what’s happening when you gradually increase your body’s cortisol tolerance). And in the short term, you can incorporate these mindfulness techniques to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. This is the rest-and-digest response (sometimes it’s called “feed and breed,” but, ew) because it signals your body that everything is a-okay, so it can relax and focus on things like pooping and sex. (Ever notice how your digestion and libido get thrown out of whack during stressful times? It’s not all in your head! It’s in your whole autonomic nervous system!)
Gervais points out that most of us get a lot of opportunities to engage the sympathetic nervous system, “Because life — especially in a city — is so stimulating.” (A wedding, he adds, “is all about the sympathetic nervous system.” I would add: NO SHIT.) We often struggle to prioritize things like rest and mindful attention, so the parasympathetic system might need some practice. One of Gervais’ goals, he says, “is to train you to be able to switch gears between those two states.” That’s why he emphasizes the importance of breathwork and rest into your exercise routine. Oh, and, “leave your phone in your locker...that’s my number one tip.” Damn it.
The words “parasympathetic nervous system” might not sell many bridal bootcamp packages. It doesn’t look as snappy on a t-shirt as “kettlebells before wedding bells.” But it’s part of what’s keeping me from feeling like a maniac during what ought to be, at least in part, an exciting time in my life. Most importantly, it’s helping me to be present in it. I’d like to take that peace and groundedness with me, not just through this year, but through the rest of my life.
It might seem antithetical to give myself one more thing to do. But I now know that when I’m juggling a lot, squeezing in a workout is one of the best things I can do for myself. It gives my brain a time-out, drains away some of that pointless panic energy, and lets me come back to the world with fresh eyes and the wherewithal to stop and look around. Sure, there’s a lot to be stressed out about right now. And there’s plenty to be thrilled and joyful over. I can’t eradicate the bad entirely. But I can feel them both.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.