'Exercising to failure' makes me feel like a failure.
March 28, 2007 8:49 PM   Subscribe

Why is exercise making me feel depressed? All I read and hear is that exercise goes a long way toward alleviating depression and making one feel better. All it has done for me lately is cause mini-panic attacks in the gym, make me feel like a failure and cause me to feel depressed for hours after I work out. I am just able to get over myself for the next day just to have it all happen over again as I somehow force myself back into the gym.

Relevant information: I am a male; 42 years old; asthma and migraines controlled by medication that ostensibly do not affect mood; going through a divorce; started working out for the first time in my life in December 2005 with an awesome personal trainer.

I work out with the trainer three times a week doing 'functional' weightlifting supplemented with cardio on the other days. Nearly every workout for the past month or so has left me a puddle of emotion that is really freaking me out. For example, I will do an exercise like the bench press and do sets of reps until muscle failure. At that point, a rush comes over me that I have not only worked to physical muscle failure but that I am personally a failure because I could not do more reps/more weight. I then start with this self-defeating internal talk that ruins me for other exercises. I will also start comparing myself and my puny (dis)abilities with other guys half my age in the gym. I get real quiet and have even felt I was going to start to cry. The emotions are sometimes just overwhelming. I have been able so far to force myself to finish the workouts and leave. I then go home and stew about how I am such a failure and I have not made the muscle gains I should, etc. etc. I sometimes vow that I will quit the gym. It has affected my sleep, even. I then wake up the next day feeling a bit better and OK throughout the day just to have it happen again when I go back to exercise.

This stuff also kills me when I do cardio on my own. I beat myself up for stopping when I run on the treadmill when I get exhausted after 1.5 miles. I ran a 5K in October and a 10K in November and when I find I can't even do 1.5 miles, I immediately become depressed.

I am honestly not sure if it's my perfectionism that is killing me. Whether something is wrong chemically or whether I am just taking things way too seriously. My trainer has been wonderfully supportive and I feel bad when I get all quiet during my workouts and become this sullen, depressed idiot.

The kicker is that—rationally—I know that the self-defeating internal talk is b.s. but I feel powerless to talk myself out of it. I know, for example, that I have gotten stronger over the past year, but for some reason the bad thoughts overwhelm any good thoughts I might try to use to combat them.

Has anyone else gone through the same thing? I feel very alone with this because I thought that starting to exercise would help my mood, not cause me to be moody. It's really causing me a lot of mental pain and suffering. I'll be happy to follow up if more details would help. Thank you.
posted by playmobil to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (41 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I often feel this way in a gym, which is why I don't go there. I prefer to do all my training outdoors, preferably on non-treadmill type apparatus.

I have this feeling, unsubstantiated by any kind of scientific proof, that treadmills and stationary bikes and their like teach you a bad lesson. They teach you that no matter how hard you try or how fast you go, you will never get anywhere at all but will instead remain where you started.

For this reason I like to bike around town. Even if I don't go very far, at least I went somewhere - and somewhere of my own choosing. The difference in the feeling at the end is very significant for me.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:37 PM on March 28, 2007 [3 favorites]

I am honestly not sure if it's my perfectionism that is killing me.

Start there.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:39 PM on March 28, 2007

Best answer: Also, your mood is getting helped. You know those voices that are critical? They've been there for years. But exercise requires being physically present where you are and makes it near impossible to maintain the processes that have allowed you to ignore the fact that you have feelings that need to be addressed.

Even though you are feeling bad, you are getting better. I'd keep going to the gym and keep exploring what is going on with you. You have nothing to lose but a long-standing knot of fear and pounds.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:43 PM on March 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

Do you do this in other aspects of your life? Do you beat yourself up for failing to achieve perfection or only do things at which you know you're really awesome? And also, do you think it's possible that you're projecting all of your bad feelings about your divorce onto this more manageable challenge?

If this is just a problem about exercise, then maybe it can be fixed by finding a different form of exercise or a different exercise environment. But it sounds to me like maybe it's about something bigger, and in that case it might be worth it to find a therapist or other professional to discuss this with.
posted by craichead at 9:45 PM on March 28, 2007

Nobody is born with rippling biceps. It's hard to believe that when you're standing in a room of fit, muscular people, but everyone had to start somewhere. Accept that you're in that starting phase. Consider setting small goals for yourself, so that you can realize you are accomplishing something.

Also, what Ironmouth said.
posted by scarlet at 9:47 PM on March 28, 2007

I think you should make an attempt to stop worrying about WHY you are working out, at least while working out. In other words, instead of focusing on, "This is my tenth curl, after this I MUST do 11," which is future-focused, you should instead try to think, "my arm is curling, I am breathing, my heart is beating, I feel sweaty," which is now-focused. In other words, don't attach value to your actions while working out. Stop worrying about the result of the workout, be in the moment. Plan ahead of time (before getting to the gym) exactly what you are going to be doing (10 curls), then stick to it, and do no more. The point is to see your actions as simply as possible: you aren't working out, or doing a curl, or proving yourself, your simply moving your arm up and down.

I hope some of the helps. It's kind of a Zen approach.
posted by JPowers at 10:01 PM on March 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

I often turn to aggressive exercise when I'm working through some sort of sorrow in my life. I like it because it helps me work on improving me while at the same time getting my mind off of what is bothering me. The problem is that sometimes the exhaustion that calms the chattering in your head can also muffle the self-preservation "rah rah rah" noises that I think a lot of us have on silent repeat when we're going through troubling times.

Divorces are hard, even if they're done for the best of reasons and were totally your idea, which, most of the time, they're not. There is likely some pent up emotion that you only break through to when your defenses are down and you get them down through exercise.

In short, I've been there in similar times in my life. I've mostly noticed it with yoga, but sometimes with swimming as well. I'm not a super emotional person but when realy bad crap was happening in my life, the pool is the only place I'd cry and I always thought it was quite strange.

Also, don't discount the huge importance of a proper diet when you're increasing your workout. You need lots of protein and sugars/carbs or else you'll bonk and you'll feel like someone just killed your whole family.

Your situation does sound more serious than just "going through some tough times" and if people here don't have bright ideas I'd consider adding some sort of counselor to your trainer coterie, or maybe just running this by the trainer you have to see what they have to say. In general though, good on your for trying to power through it and exercising and working on your mood, but you're smart to be paying attention to danger signs and attacking the problemfrom a few angles. Good luck!
posted by jessamyn at 10:06 PM on March 28, 2007

It is your perfectionism.

Let's try to reframe it.

When you workout and you don't fail, you're not exceeding your goal (you're just working out.)

Only through failing, physically, do you progress.

Possibly, your trainer could might back off a bit - you could stand some time and consideration.

You said: I will also start comparing myself and my puny (dis)abilities with other guys half my age in the gym

But just as much, you're comparing yourself to others.
Gee, why don't you have a Mr. Universe body?
Or a million dollars?

How about something a bit more healthy - compare yourself to...yourself? Are you working harder? Are you making an effort across your life? Who can be perfect every day, every hour, every minute?

Why not just try for the sake of trying of making yourself better? Life isn't a contest.
posted by filmgeek at 10:06 PM on March 28, 2007

Best answer: My friend is a trainer and she says many clients experience sudden, deep emotional reactions when they exercise because an emotion that they experienced early in life got "stuck" in their muscles. I'm not saying it as eloquently as how she describes it but the example she used was let's say you're a little kid and something makes you sad. When this sad event occurs you're sitting in a hunched position. Fast forward 30 years, you're working the part of your shoulders that were hunched and all of a sudden you get this sad feeling. I think it's the downside of 'muscle memory.'

My trainer friend is a huge believer in positive thinking. I have NEVER heard one negative sentence come out of her mouth. She says that if you believe you can lift more, you will, even if it's only one more ounce. Conversely if you say you are weak, your body will accommodate that thought and you will not be able to lift as much. If you want to continue weightlifting, force yourself to think only positive thoughts when you are at the gym. The second a negative thought enters your mind, visualize it turning into a poof of smoke and drifting away.

Also, I would make an effort to free myself from the perfectionism thing ASAP. It's probably easiest to do with the guidance of a therapist. Perfectionism is a seductive trap. You need to get to a place where 'good enough' is good enough. My perfectionist coworker is experimenting with doing a 'good enough' job and she is making progress. The other day she was so excited that she'd made a mistake, fixed it, and did not spend one minute beating herself up about it. You need to get to that place. There is a lot of freedom in 'good enough.'

And maybe it would be helpful to find other things to do. Maybe you just haven't found the right activity and/or the right venue. Maybe you'd feel better exercising with a class or maybe you'd like spinning. Try something different. I notice guys at the gym seem to do a lot of bench pressing and bicep curls so maybe you're in a rut.
posted by Soda-Da at 10:17 PM on March 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think it might have to do with the fact that you're going through a divorce. I am not sure how long that process is taking and whether you had similar emotions beginning of last year...but such process takes a huge toll on a person. Women have girlfriends to cry with or bitch about but men tend to hold their emotion.

I started working out in January of this year. Unfortunately I only can afford 30minutes a day to workout so I've been doing little bit of cardio at a time and not much of weight training. So it's different type of exercise. It took 3 months or so but I used to be in a baaad mood during the day...too tired, and the stupidest thing used to piss me off, but after I workout, I convince myself doing this is going to make me feel better. I don't push myself till I wear myself out everyday...maybe once or twice a day when I can afford to rest the following day. I am told, however, that your way of working out is effective....with plenty of rest, ofcourse.

Wish you the best, and I hope you would do something to care for your emotions...take a mini vacation of sort. If not, seek outside help or find someone to talk to.

Wish you the best!
posted by icollectpurses at 10:22 PM on March 28, 2007

I think exercise per se is not triggering your unhappiness. I think it is very telling that you have been working out for quite a long time (keeping it up so long is well worth feeling proud of), yet your problems originate relatively recently, yet you focus on the exercise itself as the causative factor.

You mention that you are going through a divorce, but then you do not bring it up again. I can't help but wonder if you are bringing shame, self-reproach and feelings of failing that you are suppressing in other parts of your life and having them come out in the gym. You are engaged in an exercise practice that pushes you to your physical level of endurance, after all. That one might run into rocky emotional territory along with hitting a physical wall does not seem that strange to me.

It seems to be my month for telling everyone they need therapy but there it is. I think you are running into deeper waters, the divorce is probably a significant factor, you're in your early forties which is frankly classic midlife crisis territory, the exercise is an incidental trigger and you could probably use some emotional support.

Beyond this, a couple things occur. You might solicit further support from your trainer without getting all into your personal issues. I think something to the effect of just telling him you are hitting the wall pretty bad, feeling like you are stalling out and having a lot of negative feelings when you do reps to failure. Plateaus and loss of confidence go with the territory, after all, and helping people through them is a trainer's job. You aren't being sullen or an idiot, you're wrestling with tough, dark thoughts. Let your trainer do his job and help you work through it.

The other is, while to me it always feels foolish and simplistic and contrived, I've found that consciously, purposely affirming myself has an effect. When I'm doing something good that is difficult and I don't feel good about it, I clearly and simply tell myself things like, you're doing a good job. This is really tough and you're really hanging in there. You know, it is like pretty boneheaded, not sophisticated stuff like way to go, champ. What I found is I am so hard on myself. I make a difficult positive change (i.e. quitting smoking) and then sneer at myself for taking it so hard. You really have to be kind to yourself, especially when you're going through hard times. I know you say the bad thoughts overwhelm them but keep at it. It took me many months of making a conscious effort to think about myself more positively before I realized I was starting to internalize some genuine benefits.

Finally, I wonder if you might experiment with making some of your exercise less goal-oriented. I.E. doing cardio, could you turn off the mileage and just try to experience running? Maybe work on focusing on process over some arbitrary distance goal?
posted by nanojath at 10:25 PM on March 28, 2007

You should look into one of the many exercise charting websites, or just roll your own with excel. Then you can look at that upward sloping line on your graph and say "Look, I CAN do more reps than before!" "I AM making progress!"

That said, I think you have some serious emotional issues to work through that are independent of the weightlifting. Beating yourself up like that is not a good sign, and it wouldn't at all be surprising if you're going through some sort of mild depression, given the circumstances. See a shrink if you think it's serious, but otherwise just try to keep your head up, eat right, keep working out, and surround yourself with your work, your friends, and life's little successes.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:37 PM on March 28, 2007

Hey, you ran a 5K and a 10K before. Everyone has setbacks. Get outside and run somewhere beautiful, something to get you out of your ruts. With the divorce and all, you need something freeing and de-stressing. Not saying that can't be the gym, but take a few days elsewhere (like running, or I'd say canoeing, but that's just me - it's wonderful and not rigid like "training.") and when you come back to the gym, look for the opportunity to see it differently. And you can always use very aggressive thought-stopping techniques or some other mental techniques like this from a recent thread, to change your thoughts.
posted by Listener at 10:41 PM on March 28, 2007

I actually talked to a trainer where I work today, and she mentioned that it is possible to over-exercise. The side effects are the same as not getting any exercise at all - depression, insomnia, lethargy. Thirty minutes of exercise per day was her recommendation for the average person.

By this time, you've probably hit your plateau and just aren't improving as fast as you did in the beginning.
It's alright to feel depressed sometimes, don't beat yourself up over that.
posted by idiotfactory at 11:09 PM on March 28, 2007

Personally, I don't like exercising for the sake of exercise.

It just so happens that many activities I like intrinsically require exercise. Have you considered hiking, running outside, swimming, joining a sports team, learning a new sport?

I personally find I enjoy being active alot more when I can focus on the fun of the activity rather than on the pressure of exercising.

I also find I'm alot happier when I'm doing the activity with friends--- trainer's slightly different because that's not an even relationship.

Make sure you take enough rest days too.

good luck, and good on ya for getting out and being active during what must be a difficult time for you.
posted by nat at 11:20 PM on March 28, 2007

Hmm, going through a divorce and comparing yourself with hot guys half your age? Gee, I wonder if there's a connection.

One thing I know from personal experience is that you get a very distorted view of normality when you hang out at the gym regularly. Try to remind yourself that those gymbunnies are not normal but actually very atypical. And to a lard-arsed outsider, you may well be closer to them than you know.

ikkyu2 could well be on to something too. Gym work is a solitary, difficult discipline with no immediate visible rewards. Maybe it's time to cut back on gym training and start playing soccer or go dancing or learn judo or do something with a group of people where you also have fun.

You know, dedicated exercise takes a certain amount of mental energy. Normally, you would get back more as you recover than you put in. But now, with the emotional burdens you are understandably carrying, maybe you are not getting back more, but actually going further into deficit.

There is no shame in cutting back, or taking two weeks off. Many people think that training to failure every workout is a bad, ultimately destructive practise, and prefer periodised programmes where you only exercise at peak capacity near the end of a cycle. I know you think your trainer is great, but maybe you need to raise the idea that you are overtrained, run down emotionally, and in need of some recuperation.

Remember to look at your records and workout notes to remind yourself of the real progress you have made.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:26 PM on March 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well, why not stop exercising to failure, and go back to doing a certain number of sets and reps at certain weights, steadily increasing the number.

Different things work for different people, so if a particular strategy of exercise isn't working for you, try another. If your trainer won't accept that, he's probably not all that awesome and you should find a different one.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:36 PM on March 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

"If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself."

It sounds like much of your depression may be coming from elsewhere in your life, but you definitely want to let go of any comparisons with others in the gym. That time is for you, to do good things for yourself and make yourself feel better. The only thing you should consider comparing yourself to is your own performance, but even that is unnecessary especially if it gets you down.

I'm a big fan of exercising to failure, but in my early forties I've found I've had to step the frequency way down, as well as the weight. I do all muscle groups in one session. If I'm going to failure it is pretty pointless for me to return to the gym before I've had three full rest days to recover. My body just doesn't bounce back like it used to, and if I work out earlier I wind up a bit frustrated at my performance. If you figure out the timing just right you will hit that brief window where your muscles have recovered completely, plus a little more and your workouts will feel that much more pleasurable. Also make sure you are getting extra rest after workouts or you'll just wear yourself out and shortchange the recovery.

You also might consider whether you are actually learning things from the trainer, or using him for motivation. Personally I use the time to catch up on NPR podcasts and completely zone out to everything but my body and what I'm listening to. I hate doing any sort of exercise where I am trying to keep up with someone else or their expectations. Much better to listen to your body and do what feels right. Some days that will mean more intense workouts, some days you step it down. It's all about doing what makes you feel good.

Also make sure you are properly fueling and hydrating your body. If you are on a weight loss program, you are going to run into trouble while working out hard, and bonking sucks physically and emotionally. Better to eat a good deal of your calories prior to the workout so you are full of energy and diet on the off days. Consuming energy drink during your workout can help keep you going as well.
posted by Manjusri at 12:32 AM on March 29, 2007

I will do an exercise like the bench press and do sets of reps until muscle failure. At that point, a rsh comes over me that I have not only worked to physical muscle failure but that I am personally a failure because I could not do more reps/more weight. I then start with this self-defeating internal talk that ruins me for other exercises. I will also start comparing myself and my puny (dis)abilities with other guys half my age in the gym. I get real quiet and have even felt I was going to start to cry. The emotions are sometimes just overwhelming.

The timing of this really struck me. Consider:

- You are dealing with a lot of stress and pent-up emotion in your life (divorce).

-You may also be dealing with some kind of mid-life re-evaluation (being 42 + divorce).

- You are doing something you have never done before (working out on a regular basis).

All of these things require a lot of mental and physical energy. It takes a lot of energy just to hold it together and keep from crying and getting sucked into an emotional vortex when you're going through all sorts of stuff like this. Add to that, you're putting your body through the additional stress of hard physical work that it isn't used to.

Perhaps the problem is that, having worked your muscles to failure on the bench press, you are truly exhausted, and you momentarily don't have the energy to hold it all together. You're not just "bonking" physically, but mentally as well.

I don't have a great solution, except to say: recognize how much energy you're expending all day long and try to accomodate that. Maybe you can talk to your trainer about this and design a workout that focuses more on perfecting your form, rather than working out to exhaustion. When I get down on myself for not looking like the 20-somethings in my gym, I find that concentrating on doing a few perfect reps can be really helpful. Even if I can only do 8 pullups, if they're 8 good ones, I feel good, rather than totally spent.
posted by googly at 1:28 AM on March 29, 2007

I think other posters have covered the perfectionism issues. I'll just say something practical about the treadmill situation.

I find a heart rate monitor absolutely essential for long cardio work, as I go off too fast without one. I discovered this while rowing, where I would find it very hard to pace myself for 2000m and would be completely at a loss to do the kind of longer distances I wanted to for training (which would be nearer 5000-10000m).

Now that I've got a monitor and I know what heart rate I can sustain for a period I just keep going at that heart rate till I've done the time or covered the distance. I can sit on a rowing machine for an hour at a time without a problem keeping up a decent rate. The goal is then sustaining that heart rate, not covering however many metres in whatever time. It also becomes proof throughout your workout that you're not slacking.

If you're doing substantial periods of aerobic exercise then definitely get hold of one.
posted by edd at 3:19 AM on March 29, 2007

I'm no exercise expert, but when I start back again after taking winter off, I have terrible terrible mood swings. I get awfully bitter at my husband and I pick fights. After a while, if I keep at it, this all goes away - the mood swings. And then, I notice how the exercise is keeping my moods stable, and I feel generally happy again.
posted by b33j at 3:26 AM on March 29, 2007

Do you always work out to failure? From what I understand, working out to failure at every workout is counterproductive. Personally, I find that working out to failure at every session makes me pissed off and sad if I do it for more than a couple of weeks. Frankly, it's very tough, both physically and emotionally. It's good to have heavy, light, and medium days in your cycle. Look into short and long term periodization.
posted by sid at 5:36 AM on March 29, 2007

I used to have this problem, although perhaps not in such an intense way as you. But then I wasn't going through a divorce. For me it was entirely related to perfectionism, and my feeling is that your case is the same.

You simply can't expect to go through a divorce without it messing with you emotionally. Since you describe yourself as a bit of a perfectionist, its not surprising that you manifested these symptoms under the circumstances. Don't beat yourself up about it.

What worked for me was to replace the negative self talk with an alternate, rational story. You say you're trying to talk yourself out of it, but you do need a well defined story that you repeat to yourself over and over again.

Firstly it helped to have achievable defined goals. For me, I was mainly going to the gym to help my mood, and energy levels. I wasn't trying to become Arnie. So when I found myself comparing myself to gym bunny, I'd remind myself that that wasn't my objective at the moment. Also, I'd have a goal in terms of weight lifted or distance run that was close to, but just above where I was at the moment. If your own goals are well defined, I think its much easier to ignore comparisons with others, and gain satisfaction from reaching your goals.

Secondly, I measured my own weight, and noted how much weight I was lifting. A sense of progress and achievement helped.

Thirdly, I reminded myself that any excercise is good. Even if I didn't complete my programme on a given day, or my weights weren't moving up fast enough, I'd think that even a little excercise is good, valuable and helpful. There is really no such thing as failure in this context, just different speeds.

Hope that helps.
posted by Touchstone at 5:46 AM on March 29, 2007

Get your thyroid checked.
posted by chocolatetiara at 7:45 AM on March 29, 2007

Sid has it exactly right. Exercise to failure in every session is way over the top. There is some research (although I can't remember the exact details -- it may have focused on superslow lifting) that suggests that although the physiological effects are maximal, the actual routine itself is so tough mentally that *not one* of the subjects continued with it after the end of the study.
posted by unSane at 7:51 AM on March 29, 2007

By the way, it's supposed to be fun. I strongly suggested taking up an exercise that you enjoy and that does not facilitate comparisons quite so easily -- for example, mountain biking WITHOUT a watch or computer. Using perceived effort scales is just as good for casual fitness and does not destroy the soul.

I would take a break from the lifting and change your trainer.
posted by unSane at 7:53 AM on March 29, 2007

I once read a quote that resonated with my recovering-perfectionistic self:

"A wonderful pastor once told me, `Perfectionism is the highest order of self-abuse,'" she tells the magazine. "So now I try to remind myself that if I engage in perfectionism, I am abusing myself. Period."

Be KIND to yourself; speak to yourself during exercise as if you were speaking to someone you love dearly and tenderly. Would you say to a child, your mother, a friend, the things you say to yourself? No! Be KIND to yourself.
posted by orangemiles at 8:23 AM on March 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm following this thread with great interest. I work out hard for an hour each morning, and while it's never made me depressed, it's never made me feel much of anything. Yes, I get immense health-benefits from it (weight loss, etc.), but I never notice any mental changes.

I don't feel particularly energized -- except for ten minutes after I'm done. I don't get a rush. I can bring my heart-rate WAY up for an hour and then, fifteen minutes later, go back to bed and sleep.

What really sucks about this is that, though I do it each morning, I fucking hate working out. It's HARD. I keep waiting for that day when it will "become a part of my lifestyle," but I can do it for years and still have to force myself to do it each morning. And the second it's done, I'm hugely relieved.

I eat well, and I haven't noticed dietary changes having any effect on this problem, one way or another. I think working out just affects some brains differently from others.
posted by grumblebee at 8:27 AM on March 29, 2007

I've found that I exercise best when the exercise serves a purpose: when I played lacrosse and soccer, I would think of my gym or running sessions as training for the team sport I was involved in, to make it easier for me to spend sixty or ninety minutes chasing a ball and a goal and to allow my physical fitness level to support the mental aspects that make all the difference in a game.

In soccer, I went from huffing and puffing in the back, getting muscled off the ball despite my size, wasting all my air just running to the detriment of my sense of the field and the game, to fitting into the team as a midfield general, directing traffic, passing creatively, and playing with my head up. Without training, I would have stayed in the back and quit after a few months of beating myself up for being a liability and a letdown.

Training for a sport also allowed me to choose a routine that would optimize my abilities specific to the sport, and constantly tweak my routine as I got better physucally and as I noticed things missing; watching others work out for sport spurred me to constantly change my routine, and I think the change kept things more enjoyable.

I don't know if you enjoy team sports. It doesn't have to be a team sport (don't forget swim teams) or a sport at all: whether you like running in races or playing handball or tennis, or canoeing or sailing or snowboarding, there is always a workout routine that will make you more effective. Your exercise will serve a purpose, and if you're not on a team, you'll at least find other enthusiasts to compare notes with.

I played soccer in a local rec league on a coed team with an age range of 18 to 58 (I started at age 30), all skill levels, and it was great fun for everyone. I used a combination of free weights, isometric and body weight exercises, medicine ball workouts, yoga and pilates stretches, jogging, and mountain biking to develop and maintain playing form. In a year, I lost 45 pounds and gained in confidence and satisfaction, and made a lot of friends, which helped with the loneliness and depression I needed to come out of then. I also made a few satisfying enemies (on the field), players on other teams who were good and tough and uncompromising opponents, and I was able to take a fall one game and train to vengeance next time we met. After games, both teams would have a round of beers and make up.

I've gone on too long but I think you catch my drift: maybe your exercise routine needs some purpose to it beyond general well-being. There's no such thing as "too old" for something new. Breathing life back into your exercise routine can help breathe life back into life itself.
posted by breezeway at 8:35 AM on March 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I wanna point out that I am in no way a perfectionist and have experienced exactly what you're talking about. I was taking a boxing class and was doing great for 2 months. Then the 3rd month, I found I could barely perform up to my usual standards and something just wasn't right. I started getting anxiety about going to the class because I didn't want to look like I wasn't trying because I was trying my ass off.

Eventually I just quit so I'd stop feeling like such a failure. Other things have since come in and occupied my time and I feel happier and much less stressed out!

... but i also gained a little weight... and wanna go back.

Anyways, I blame it not on perfectionism but rather on not wanting to let down your personal trainer. Maybe you should go to the gym sans personal trainer.
posted by ZackTM at 8:36 AM on March 29, 2007

The emotional/psychological end of things has been pretty well covered. Certainly these are all reasonable suggestions and you'll probably want to investigate them first. But If you conclude that the problem doesn't lie in that direction and you want to look more at potential biological causes, here are some to consider:

1. Your asthma medication. Are you using some form of steroids? They can have some pretty serious effects on your mood; has to do with their tendency to suppress the output of the adrenal gland. When you exercise, you would expect your adrenal gland to kick in and pump out all sorts of hormones and what not. When you're on steroids, sometimes this doesn't happen to the degree that it should. I've experienced adrenal insufficiency and I can tell you that it results in severe, crashing depression, anxiety, and all manner of other problems.

I don't know much about non-steroid asthma meds. As I understand it, they're usually stimulants of some sort. Perhaps they also can cause crashes. You might want to check with the doctor who treats your asthma.

2. Endorphin drop. Often when you exercise, you get an endorphin high. When those endorphins go away, you could experience a sort of withdrawal. This is usually accompanied by a drop in mood.

3. Anxiety. As I understand it, exercise can trigger anxiety attacks in some people. If that's what you're experiencing, then you might want to try an anxiety treatment of some description.

4. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Fibromyalgia. This one is extremely unlikely in my opinion, but I thought I'd include it just in case. With this disorder, physical tasks are ten times more draining than they ought to be. So if you went out and exerted yourself, you'd have a horrible drop in energy and it's very likely you'd have a corresponding drop in mood along with it.
posted by Clay201 at 8:38 AM on March 29, 2007

I am looking in the direction of your asthma with suspicious eyes.

As you may know, people with asthma are much more likely to have panic attacks than the general population:

Having asthma was linked to a 4.5-fold increase in the risk of developing panic disorder, a condition characterized by repeated, unexplained panic attacks. And people with panic disorder were six times as likely as people without the anxiety condition to develop asthma over the 20 year follow-up period.

A reasonable explanation of the association would seem to be that the panic attack, by increasing things like cortisol, can help to control, or even ward off an asthma attack.

Also, exercise is a common trigger of asthma attacks. So my explanation would be that something in your exercise regime begins to trigger an asthma attack, or makes your body 'think' an attack is being triggered, and so a panic attack results. I think your depression and feelings of worthlessness could just be part of the aftermath of the panic attack.

You could try upping you asthma meds a bit.
posted by jamjam at 9:06 AM on March 29, 2007

Just an idea, but maybe it's the gym that is depressing you, and not the exercise. Let's face it, the gym is full of people on a quest to make themselves feel better about their flabby bodies, or to show off their already-hard bodies. It's a stew of low self-esteem combined with body-proud and sexual hormones thrown in to boot. Your body is on display. There are people next to you who may be stronger, weaker, etc. There's all kinds of potential to feel bad about yourself in a gym.

Try another form of exercise in another location. You've probably learned what you need from the trainer at this point.
posted by scarabic at 9:12 AM on March 29, 2007

Don't stew. Don't worry about getting a 'perfect' or even a 'good' workout. Just workout.

My strategy is very simple and works beautifily. I just go in there and do some cardio. I aim for 30-60 minutes. If I can only do 45 minutes, thats great. Thats exercise my heart got that it would not have gotten normally. No goals, no plans, no nothing. I go in with some music and a magazine and get my heart rate up. That's it. That's a workout. Everything else is fluff and gimmicks.

Competiting with yourself is Nike propaganda for small-minded people to sell shoes and make people who spend their lives at the gym feel good about the incredible waste of time they engage in. Adding muscle is a ridiculous trap of potions and overwork, not to mention pain and the potential for serious injury.

Tell your perfectionism to fuck off and tell yourself you're doing this for your heart. Your heart needs it more than your gluts or whatever. Accept that heart disease will kill you faster because of your perfectionist attitude. Accept that a short workout is better than none. Accept that tying your moods to how well your aging body performs is a fool's errand.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:26 AM on March 29, 2007

Also, tell your trainer to get a hike (and a real job). You dont need this ultra-competitve Nike-mentality to just get fit and feel better. Leave that for the vain people and the 18 year olds.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:28 AM on March 29, 2007

damn dirty ape makes some very valid points about competitiveness, over-training, perfectionism and their associated ills. However, weight training is not a trap nor a waste of time. It has many medically researched benefits beyond looking better. The key is to do it in moderation, with the goals of feeling better and being in better health, rather than being better than the next guy, always performing at '110%', or getting those mythical rock hard abs.
posted by sid at 10:00 AM on March 29, 2007

Hey, GREAT for you for even going to the gym and trying to get in better shape! Do you know how many people don't do that? Ever?

How long have you been going to the gym? I find I don't get the energy and perk ups until at least week 2 or 3 of going consistently for at least an hour.

Do you listen to music? I can't work out without my Ipod and my own personal blend of pump up, energizing, fast beat music. (There are a bunch of free Ipod podcasts with this type of music if you're interested.)

And echoing everyone else's points, everyone starts somewhere. EVERYONE has started going to a gym at one point and felt they were lame and weak and so out of shape compared to everyone else there.
posted by gramcracker at 10:36 AM on March 29, 2007

One thing I don't understand is how all those people on treadmills can keep on going after going outside and running in the park for once.

When I run, the things I see are as much a part of it as the workout I get. Some of my best memories are the all the runs I've had at all times of year in the parks near my home - the sun in the trees and the grass and the hills, the roads and the buildings, and so on. I value this so much more than the gym - and my school has a great gym. Now if only I had a running partner who could push me hard... On the other hand, the solitary part of it is really good too, and is probably key to solving the problems you mention.

Drive around your area and find the most beautiful looking park. I know the places near where I live are not that good looking but those I really get a kick out of are 10-15 min of driving away.

I'm not sure what "failure" means in "exercising to failure", but keep in mind that you need consistent effort to build up endurance, and even so my endurance in everything I do varies wildly day to day. And if you're seeing severe fatigue effects, see a doctor.
posted by azazello at 12:22 PM on March 29, 2007

Best answer: You have a great deal going on here. I am not a doctor or a shrink so I don't about your medication or or other issues. But I do know about physical training.

Think about it like this: Your stresses are coming from so many sources there is no way you can fix them from one place. Exercise won't cure everything.

Repeat after me: I will NEVER be perfect. There is no such thing. Life is not a race.

Exercise is a means. You HAVE to enjoy the means for it to be worth it.

My pet peeve is this: This idea you work to "failure"— as in full muscle failure — has GOT to stop. I want to strangle fucking trainers that do this to people. Especially people in your situation. You have a great deal going on. Your trainer should be helping you find a means of physical expression that fits what you want and where you are in your life.

Failure. Damn. You know you can do 2 set of five reps of dead lift three or four times per week NEVER experiencing full failure and see TREMENDOUS gains. Starting light and just constantly adding 5% of the total weight every week. Being patient and not macho. And you will go from dead lifting 185 to 400lbs in no time.

There is working out as simple lifestyle habit - the goal is improvement in health.

And. THEN there is working out for specific metrics - like for competition or to train for an event.

In either case you want to experience gains towards those goals. Both there will be periods of gains and losses over time.

I cannot stress this enough. Training you muscles to FAIL every time you lift or workout trains your nervous system to fail. It is NOT good over the long haul.

For people like me - say I was training for a fight - would not want to condition myself to have full muscle failure every workout. Why? I require my nervous system to learn new things, to train fine motor skills and in order to avoid injury and over training— it will not do this over fatigued.

So. I would have to workout intelligently. I still have to push myself. But I want my fatigue to come mostly from the activity that most closely matches what my event will be. NOT from lifting weights or running.

Going to full muscle fatigue is an end to a specific means. It will help you see gains very quickly. It will avoid the adaptation plateau. BUT. It has to be periodized. You can't do it ALL the time. Especially if you want to workout as an augmentation of ANOTHER activity.

For lack of less complicated way of stating it you are frying your nervous system if you train this way all the time. Especially under the emotional stress you are under.

It is no wonder this is exacerbating an already tenuous emotional state.

Right now you OTHER activity is LIFE, brother.

You want to push your self? Push yourself to be happy. To make friends. Push yourself to fail at those right now.

Go to the gym and set yourself up to succeed. Take a class in something you have always wanted to know how to do. That in the PROCESS you will find enjoyment.
posted by tkchrist at 5:07 PM on March 29, 2007 [4 favorites]

One thing that I find helps me at the gym is to listen to music, watch TV, or listen to podcasts while working out. By focusing on the voices in my ears, I then experience this "whoa, have I really cycled 5 miles already? if it was that easy, I can keep going for another 20 minutes at least!" and I do. The gym isn't an achievement for me, but something to do while VH1 is on.
posted by crayolarabbit at 5:26 PM on March 29, 2007

What TheophileEscargot said, very much. Also consider some nice electronica to listen to. I found the overwhelmingly positive techno beats really added to my exercise, increased my energy, and left me very much in a positive mood.
posted by Goofyy at 11:20 PM on March 29, 2007

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