Your Brain On Iron

Do we have our entire model of mental health treatment upside down? Rather than your brain running on psychotherapy and meds, maybe it needs to be given the good stuff from time to time. You guessed it… your brain needs to be on iron more often than not.

I’m trying to get a better understanding of how my mind works and how to better incorporate my HRD2KILL philosophy into my day to day mental health protocol. With this comes not only daily rituals and practice but loads of reading and listening to people that are far smarter than I’ll ever be.

With that being said I wanted to use today’s blog post to evaluate some new research that has been brought to light about the amazing effects that not just exercise but lifting heavy, inanimate objects can have on our mental health.

Are We Doing It Wrong?

So, it’s no secret. I’ve been dealing with my own mental health related issues of late and it’s been a long, hard slog but things are looking up. When I finally accepted that something probably wasn’t right and decided to get some help, the support I found was tier 1. I quickly found out that I’m not alone and there’s nothing to feel ashamed about. I found peace with the concept that this is an injury and like all injuries, can be healed.

I partook in the Veteran Transition Network program, found a great psychologist or as I like call them, mind mechanics (courtesy of Jocko Willink) and started to do the work of getting my mind healed up from some of the psychological injuries I incurred over my tour 8 years ago. One thing I noticed quickly is that there are a lot of us out there suffering and barely getting by.

One thing I noticed is that there are a lot of us out there suffering, barely getting by.

Although I can’t quantifiably determine the level of suffering per individual since pain is relative, one thing I can anecdotally determine is someone’s physical activity levels and how it correlates to the level of despair they’re in.

Let me elaborate a bit.

From the friends, acquaintances, colleagues and clients I encounter one thing I’m starting to piece together is that those that seem to be in the bigger funk tend to be the ones that are less physically active. It’s a downward spiral of shit that I think contributes to it:

  1. You feel down;
  2. Feeling down reduces motivation to train;
  3. You feel less energized and guilty for not training and it reinforces step #1.

This is the downward spiral of shit that feeds itself and continues to amplify a shitty situation. I know, I’ve been there many times. For anyone dealing with mental health issues, this is not a spiral you want to enter.

So what’s our current model of treatment?

Step 1 is we reach out for help;

Step 2 is we find a psych;

Step 3 is sometimes medication and doing the work laid our for us.

The issue I see here is that this only addresses a portion of what isn’t working, our minds, and is symptomatic of our medical system in Canada. We treat symptoms rather than the system, in this case our entire body.

The famous latin saying, “Anima sana, in corpore sano” is something that has always resonated with me; it means, “a healthy soul in a healthy body.

Anima sana, in corpore sano – A healthy soul in a healthy body.

So why is it that our ancient ancestors possessed this fundamental understanding of ourselves but our modern iteration of our species has seemed to have forgotten it?

I can’t answer that question directly but what I can do is showcase some of the current research that is making the case for movement and training as medicine.

What Are The Science Nerds Saying?

It seems like the consensus is becoming overwhelmingly clear:

In order to treat a broken mind, you need to build a powerful body.

Let’s dig in…

1. A new study from the University of Vermont Medical Center published in the journal of Global Advances in Health and Medicine has made the bold claim that exercise should be prescribed to patients with mental health issues before psychiatric drugs. The researchers went even a step further and suggested that mental health facilities should be equipped with gyms.

The one hundred in-patients that took part in the study were prescribed 60 minutes of structured exercise, 4 times per week. Additionally, each participant would take part in a 60 minute nutrition lesson after each fitness session. The results were incredible. Of the patients that finished the 60 minute exercise session, 95 percent reported feeling better, while 63 percent reported feeling happy or very happy instead of sad, very sad or neutral.

Of the patients that completed the 60 minute exercise session, 95 percent reported feeling better…

2. A recent Harvard University study showed, through a meta-analysis of nearly 8000 men and women a significant link between hours of weekly exercise and risk of depression. What was observed, after controlling for genetic predisposition to depression was that those that spent at least 3 hours a week doing any type of physical activity, intensity not being a factor, decreased their chances of becoming depressed. It was also noted that a patient’s risk factor fell another 17 percent with each additional 30 minutes of daily activity.

Holy SHIT!

Now, it should be noted that this study was showing how to prevent depression not treat it. The study’s lead author, Dr. Smoller, stated that

“physical activity of many kinds seems to have beneficial effects”

for mental health. However, another study did show how lifting weights may help to ease or prevent depression.

3. New research out of the University of Limerick has found that resistance training consistently reduced the symptoms of depression, whether someone was depressed at the start of the study or not. Of particular note was that it really didn’t matter how much weight lifting one did to illicit a positive change in depressive symptoms. Lifting everyday or twice a week had the same positive impact.

Lifting everyday or twice a week had the same positive impact

All that matters is showing up and completing the workouts. Increased strength gains did not correlate with decreased depression, the researchers found.

Tying This Up With A Nice Bow

What can a trainer like myself glean from all of this new research?

GO FIND YOUR BARBELL!

If we’re truly going to take on mental health wellness as a country, we need to start by addressing how we treat it. The empirical evidence is there – exercise which includes picking up a heavy piece of iron will get our country’s veterans and everyone else struggling with PTSD and depression out of the pain cave.

My role, which I take very seriously, is to get our sheepdog community moving better and motivated again to get back to the gym and get their lives back. Here’s the conversation I want to start with Veterans’ Affairs Canada.

If the goal is to reintegrate and rehabilitate our veterans after an operational stress injury, can it be established that we address the whole individual rather than just their minds?

You may see where I’m going with this…

Every soldier released from the Canadian Armed Forces that is suffering from depression or operational stress injury should have fitness and nutrition services provided in order for them to fully recover.

The how and the when is a discussion for another day but the why is self evident. Let’s get away from the mentality that we can treat humans on a symptom by symptom basis and really get into how our mind, body and soul all contribute to our well being.

I’ll sign off with this last thought.

Human beings are designed to move and move long, gruelling distances and accomplish incredible feats of endurance and strength yet we live in a world of convenience and leisure. We’ve dissociated ourselves from our primal roots and rarely go out and explore nature and use our bodies strenuously. As a consequence, our minds become overstimulated with bullshit and our bodies become under-stimulated meat bags. The result is millions of Canadians suffering from depression and anxiety and a male suicide rate that is abhorrent. Rather than cramming down pills and just talking about our problems, we need to push against a weight, literally.

To quote my favorite Canadian clinical psychologist as to the reason why lifting can improve your life,

“The purpose of life is finding the largest burden that you can bear and bearing it.” – Jordan Peterson

And with that I say, go forth and lift for your life!

Train Hard, Fight Easy.


Dave is a retired infantry officer and Afghanistan war veteran. He’s the creator of the HRD2KILL training program that was built on the principles that got him from not being able to get out of bed to competing in the Crossfit Open, Spartan Races and the Montreal Gaelic Athletics Association. You can find more mobility based exercises in his new book, “The Nimble Warrior”, now available on Apple Books and Amazon or tune into his new HRD2KILL Podcast

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