by Allison Aboud Holzer

I just returned from a trip to Florida for my grandmother-in-law’s 90th birthday party… in agonizing pain! And no, I did not party too hard, although she knows hands down how to have a good time. Rather, I played two days of hard-core family-ball showdown on the basketball court. I will spare you all of the boring details of my thunderous performance drawing jumpers and faking out under the basket… basketball-photo-2

And move instead to the main point: what I feel now is something I call “good pain” – the kind you get after physically pushing yourself to the limit without pushing too far. Truthfully, I haven’t felt “good pain” since my competitive sport days in high school (as my husband jokingly says – “high school hero, college zero”). Being competitive used to push me to the limit in a way I don’t experience now in my 30s, even in a kick-boxing gym class. Playing on a team and wanting to win pushes me beyond physical discomfort to a flow state. Afterward, I feel sore and exhausted, but also mentally energized and elated!

We all know that exercise benefits our physical health; now, researchers agree that exercise benefits our mental health, too. While some experts think exercise diverts us away from negative, ruminating thoughts, others attribute the mood-lift to being in a state of flow, achieving mastery of new skills, social contact, and chemical reactions in the brain (endorphins). Studies have shown that moderate exercise just a few times a week can relieve depression sometimes as effectively as anti-depressants and increase feelings of happiness and well-being. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that “good pain” leads to bliss gain!

But, as you know, it can be tough to motivate to exercise, especially if you are out of shape or don’t enjoy it. Many people turn to gyms and classes for support. Now, I propose another idea: Get competitive. Think of a competitive sport you may like to learn or used to play and join an intramural league or club. Many options already exist, like masters swim teams and community-based intramural leagues; but you also have the option to create your own informal league of friends and family members. Even if you are not naturally competitive, playing a group sport and working towards the common goal of winning will get your blood pumping like it hasn’t pumped before.

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Klein M.H., Greist J.H., Gurman R.A., Neimeyer R.A., Lesser D.P., Bushnell N.J., et al. “A comparative outcome study of group psychotherapy vs. exercise treatments for depression.” Int J Ment Health 1985; 13: 148-177.

Veale D., Le Fevre K., Pantelis C., de Souza V., Mann A. “Aerobic exercise in the adjunctive treatment of depression: a randomised controlled trial.” J R Soc Med 1992; 85: 541-544.