I recently wrote in this space about the opportunity police organizations across the United States have during National Emotional Wellness Month (October) to place a renewed focus on implementing tactics and strategies aimed at increasing officers' emotional wellbeing.
I was pleased to get a hefty batch of positive feedback in support of that column. Your comments and constructive criticisms are always welcome—'kudos,' 'atta-boys,' and 'gud-on-yuz' are especially fun to read.
One comment struck me as being well worth expounding upon. An individual said (and I'm paraphrasing here because it was sent to me in a private message on social media), "You didn't mention working out. The gym costs almost nothing [when you compare it to other hobbies], and the mental health benefits are as important as the physical ones."
He's right. According to an article by Nick Rizzo—Fitness Research Director at the workout and fitness website RunRepeat—"the average monthly cost of a gym membership to enjoy the benefits of working out in 2021 is $37.71."
I'm no mathematician, but by my calculation that's a buck and a quarter a day. That and another buck and a quarter won't even get you a cup of coffee (according to US News & World Report, the average cost for a standard cup of coffee without milk is $2.70).
I don't belong to a gym. I don't much like the gym. I far prefer outdoor activities like biking and hiking and swimming (more on that later), so I reached out to Rizzo to get an expert's opinion on how physical health and emotional wellness is inexorably connected.
Endorphins and Dopamine
Rizzo has done extensive research on the benefits of exercise overall as well as the benefits of specific types of exercise. Rizzo says that he has found that a single session of 20 minutes of moderate exercise has been shown to be able to:
- Reduce tension by 48% to 65%
- Diffuse anger by 75% to 100%
- Lower feelings of depression by 68% to 88%
- Decrease confusion by 31% to 35%
- Reduce fatigue by 15% 36%
- Lower total mood disturbance by 16% to 17%
- Increase vigor by 21.3%
"As you continue to exercise and workout on a regular basis, the benefits to your own mental and emotional wellbeing are compounded and more effective," Rizzo says. "Across the board, all forms of exercise have their own abilities to improve everything from how we deal with day-to-day stress, anxiety, or issues with moods, while also being able to fight against chronic issues such as fatigue, depression, debilitating depression, self-esteem, and much more."
It's well known that working out does a lot to help increase muscle mass, strength, endurance, and even pain tolerance. It also does some pretty amazing things to your brain—specifically, it produces the "neurotransmitters" endorphins and dopamine.
Endorphins help a person cope with pain and stress. Dopamine is a mood-boosting neurotransmitter that is released after you reach a goal.
Interestingly, higher endorphin levels can actually lead to higher dopamine production, creating a sort of "chain of euphoria" that can lead you to increased motivation to work out longer, harder, and more frequently. (Yay!)
This brings us to a very important word of warning. Becoming addicted to an endorphin rush is physiologically and psychologically possible. It's one thing to be a "gym rat" but it's an entirely different matter to become so addicted to exercise that it is actually harmful—be mindful of moderation.
"Listen to your body and rest when you need to rest," Rizzo says. ""You should see working out as a balancing act. The goal of a workout is not to leave the gym feeling absolutely destroyed. It's to provide the right amount of stimulus to your body to continue building muscle and strength while allowing yourself to be able to recover fully for your next workout."
Get Into the Outside
As I'd mentioned, I don't particularly like going to the gym—being there evokes unpleasant memories of rehabbing from various injuries with a physical therapist who is part Florence Nightingale and part Catherine Robbe-Grillet (50 shades of medical treatment).
I far prefer the great outdoors—give me rattlesnakes and poison ivy over steel plates and hand sanitizer any day of the week. But walking a country mile is just one of the myriad options one has for fitness regimens under the clear blue sky.
Rizzo said something during our exchange that struck me like a church bell.
"The worst thing you can do is force yourself to do something you hate," Rizzo said. "Despite working at RunRepeat, I do not run. I can't stand it. I love riding my bike. I even cycle for one to two hours while working at my stand-up desk each day. I take walks with weighted vests. I go for hikes. I go swimming with my daughter. But running? Never."
One activity along these lines comes immediately to mind for anyone who has visited Washington DC during Police Week. Countless numbers of cops participate annually in the Police Unity Tour—a nearly 300-mile bicycle ride to raise money and awareness for police officers killed in the line of duty. This is no small feat, and requires a substantial commitment to endurance riding that can turn into a pretty amazing and life-changing hobby.
There are plenty of other options to choose from—rock climbing, swimming, running, and others. There are leagues of team sports fitting just about any ability and lifestyle.
Rizzo says, "All activity and exercise is great. The most important thing is that you're doing it regularly and continue doing it overtime. So whether your cardio comes from walks through the woods, climbing mountains, walking 18-holes, or playing in a recreational basketball league, it's cardio and it counts."
Rizzo suggests finding a form of cardio you enjoy and then just starting with a light-intensity, relatively short (30-minute) session a few times a week. From there, you can build up to doing your chosen "light cardio" every day.
Police officer physical fitness is critical for prevailing in a confrontation with a violent subject, but there are myriad other benefits for taking good care of your physical wellness—being physically fit increases self-confidence, emotional wellness, and other aspects of your life.
Being physically fit takes time and effort, so the more enjoyment you get out of your exercise personally the better, because that will help to ensure that you keep coming back for more.
Marinating a lifelong commitment to regular exercise has myriad health benefits, but like just about everything else in life, you get out of it what you put in.
Make the investment and it's all but sure to pay untold dividends down the road.