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This Is Why the Gym Is Not Your "Therapy"
For the last newsletter of 2021, we're going to talk about my favorite gym meme.
“The gym is my therapy.”
You’ve heard people say it. You’ve seen pictures on Instagram that say it. You’ve probably even thought it yourself after crushing a tough workout or going for a run even when you didn’t want to.
But is the gym (or working out) really therapy?
As a professional athlete and coach, I’ve always thought of working out as one of the best ways that people can take care of their mental health. For me, training Jiu-Jitsu has been one of the most important activities that help me manage my mind. Regular intense exercise keeps me level-headed, happy, and motivated.
In my world, the Jiu-Jitsu world, you see this a lot: “Jiu-Jitsu is my therapy.” It’s a meme at this point.
It’s the same message, it just involves a lot more choking than lifting weights or running.
Though the message seems good, people interpret this problematically. The interpretation is that instead of actually going to therapy and working on your mind, you can just go to the gym and learn to fight people or pick some weights up.
In this article, I’m going to show you why the gym is not therapy and it never has been. The gym is a band-aid.
What does exercise do to your brain?
It’s been proven that laughter, sex, and exercise all have one thing in common: they release endorphins.
Endorphins are essentially the way that your brain blocks pain. When you have endorphins going through your brain, you probably feel like superman or David Goggins. Nothing can hurt you, not even your past traumas.
What the comedians say is true, laughter literally blocks the pain of existence.
Similarly, when I compete in Jiu-Jitsu (or even just train), my brain is flooded with endorphins.
In competition, when I get put in a submission, I can feel my joint getting ripped apart and popping (gruesome I know), but I feel no pain. The only thing that can make me “tap out” is the awareness of long-term injury. People hear me say this and they think I’m some tough guy trying to prove my toughness, but it’s not that.
I can’t feel the pain because the endorphins in my brain are literally blocking the ability of my body to feel pain.
Endorphins are the closest thing your body has to superpowers. The closest the human body can get to being indestructible is the temporary sensation of thinking that it’s indestructible.
This is all well and good (and actually, I think it’s pretty cool), but it sure as hell doesn't beat therapy in terms of mental health treatment. You know, actual mental health treatment?
Blocking pain doesn’t make it go away.
Whenever I’ve been depressed or anxious or even just struggling with some problem in my life, going to the gym has always made me feel better.
Whether it’s going to a Jiu-Jitsu class or just lifting weights or doing a HIIT workout at home, getting up and getting active always makes me feel better… temporarily.
Eventually, the high of the gym wears off and you get back to your life. You’re the same person. Nothing changed. You just got some endorphins from exercise because your brain wanted to protect you from the pain of a hard workout. You didn’t change, you just had a break from yourself.
If you have toxic habits, going to the gym alone isn’t going to make them go away.
You can’t out-train a bad diet, and you definitely can’t out-train bad mental health habits.
You can’t outwork addiction with some squats. You can’t cure depression with burpees. It’s really problematic to act as if you can.
Jiu-Jitsu isn’t therapy either.
I like to use Jiu-Jitsu as an example of why the gym isn’t therapy, because, in Jiu-Jitsu, there’s quite a lot of bullshit in the culture.
Jiu-Jitsu is a small, niche sport that doesn’t get a ton of press coverage, but recently it was featured in The New York Times — for all the wrong reasons. Essentially, a gym owner had a sexual abuse scandal at his gym involving one of the instructors and an underage student, and he covered it up.
It was a fucked up situation. As someone who trains and teaches Jiu-Jitsu professionally, this made me embarrassed for my sport.
Martial arts are supposed to have an element of honor and respect in them, and this case made it seem like Jiu-Jitsu had none of that. Even worse, people are still going around acting as if Jiu-Jitsu is their therapy.
The truth hurts a little bit: Jiu-Jitsu isn’t therapy, but a lot of people in Jiu-Jitsu need therapy.
The same is true for the gym. Or anything else that isn’t therapy. The only thing that’s actually therapy is, well, therapy.
Read that again.
I’ve been to therapy. It’s different from the gym.
Since I’m a guy who does a combat sport, the fact that I’ve been in a therapist's office before is strange to a lot of people.
There aren’t exactly a lot of guys getting ready to compete in this year’s world championships who are seeing their therapist every other week to make sure they’re “feeling okay”.
However, the truth is that therapy is a lot more than just talking about feelings.
Growing up, my parents used to always joke that therapists don’t do anything besides ask you “how does that make you feel?” They also made it seem like therapy was only reserved for “crazy” people.
I struggled with mental health problems starting from the time I was around 10, but I didn’t seek treatment for more than a decade after that because I didn't know any better. I thought getting help made me weak.
Until I was 21, I lived in a world that was constructed solely by my cognitive distortions and fears. It took suicidal urges for me to be like “hey, this is probably a sign something is wrong in my brain”. It took an experience with derealization for me to finally get help.
I had to break in order to realize that I needed real therapy, not just another workout.
How therapy works.
Therapy doesn't feel good like the gym does.
Sometimes, therapy sucks. Sometimes, I want to walk out of the office. Sometimes, when therapy was virtual, I wanted to yell at my therapist and then rage-quit the Zoom call we were on.
It’s not like Jiu-Jitsu. It’s not like the gym.
It’s not fun to get called out on your bullshit every week by someone who has literally spent their entire life studying how to identify when you’re acting based on your mental illness’s symptoms and not your actual thoughts.
It’s wild to realize that you have anxiety and that you’re not “a broken person who can’t function in normal society”. It’s baffling to try to learn that you’re depressed and not “worthless”.
You don’t learn that from doing squats.
You learn how to improve your mental health by working on your mind the same way you work on your body. You can’t train your physical muscles alone and expect your mental ones to look the way you want them to.
You have to put in the time.
Sometimes, when I go to the gym, I feel like I can feel the anxiety and aggression in other people when I talk to them.
Exercise is an important part of having good mental health, but it’s not better than therapy or meditating or journaling, or any other mental habit that you can use for mental health management.
Group exercise is great because it has a social component to it that forces you to at least be a bit introspective, but as someone who literally grew up while spending hours per day in the gym, I’ll be the first to tell you: the gym is different from the real world.
In the real world, there are real consequences.
You can’t go to the gym, hit a heavy bag, and then think you’re prepared to handle your toxic relationship or your trauma. That’s just not how it works.
Walking around believing that might be why there are so many sad people in the gym in the first place.
Other Articles Published In the Last 7 Days
Thank you so much for a great year!
This year was a wild ride from start to finish. It’s crazy to remember that around this time last year, I’d hardly published any writing on the internet.
This week, I reviewed all my articles from the year, and I created a list of my top 5 articles for 2021. If you’re looking to do some extra reading, you can find them at the link below:
This Is Why Buddhism Bothers Me — The time I accidentally pissed off an entire half of the world… whoopsies).
This Is Why You Should Work Below Your Limits — How hard should you push yourself? This article sought to answer that question.
I Was Average at Everything I Did Until I Learned How to Do This — We celebrate resilience, but what about quitting? Why is there no love for the smart quitter? This article covers everything I’ve given up and how it’s led me to where I am. My all-time most popular article on Medium.
4 Subtle Signs That Someone Secretly Wants You to Fail — Not everyone has your best interests at heart. Some people want you to fall flat on your face. This is my favorite article that I wrote this year.
What is humanity’s best-kept secret? — This short essay took off on Quora and was translated into Japanese, Spanish, and Italian. Hopefully, you get as much out of it as my other readers did.
Thank you for reading this week’s edition of my newsletter. If you’d like to share today’s article, here is the Medium link.
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I’m excited to release my next ebook in just a few weeks’ time.
Happy New Year!