Gervontae "Tank" Davis approaches every training session the same way he approaches every fight. With eyes fixated on the target and a patient bounce in his step, he is like a lion ready to pounce on his prey. Whether it’s a punching bag or the face of his opponent, you can feel the velocity in which he throws each punch and with every exhale you experience his energy being transferred through his target like an electric shock. Focused, he knows exactly where he is about to throw all his baggage, trauma, and anger manifested through the circumstances of growing up in Baltimore City. I always wondered what motivates athletes more; ambition, pride, or life experiences so traumatic, they that make you question if life is even worth living? Is it just a love for boxing? Or is boxing a coping mechanism? Has Tank found the cure for stress, trauma, anger, and anxiety? Has he found therapy in an unconventional space?
Movement happens when energy is released, absorbed, and re-released through the musculo-skeletal system to perform a task. If the energy we absorb is toxic then we must release it, we have to let it go. Have you ever been so mad you wanted to punch something? Or maybe you punched something and felt better afterwards? Or maybe you went for a run or a long walk to escape. Whatever your outlet was, it helped you process your stress and anger. Holding on to negative energy often manifests unfavorable conditions and results in detrimental outcomes. Energy cannot be created nor destroyed but we can use it to fuel us. We have the power to use it any way we see fit but we have to know how to control it. Maybe that's why so many boys from the hood turn to sports for an outlet. I remember a conversation I had with one of my teammates years ago about playing football and all that we loved and disliked about the sport. We were laughing and joking then his face changed. He spoke up as he raised his eyebrows like Black Twitter’s favorite "lightskinned" face. He looks in my eyes with conviction with his lips tightening and says "Bruh, real talk I need ball; it's the only thing that keeps me from really killin' a nigga, real talk yo!"The tension in his face told me he meant every word and I believed him. He needed a way to release all his trauma and cope with the circumstances of his life. He’d often share personal stories, but we never really discussed what made him so angry. In a culture that breeds toxic masculinity and belittles men for showing emotion, we have a habit of holding onto our trauma without ever learning to process it. In my experiences it seems like movement has helped a lot of us cope with the stressors in our lives. This idea has lead me to wonder, if exercise is the mental health medication that doctors should be prescribing? First we must consider how stress affects our mental and physical well being. Next, how does exercise combat these negative health outcomes?
Stress, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are known to affect our decision making process, our relationships, our motivations and ultimately dictate success and happiness. Yet, we don't typically consider how stress affects our physical health. Our body is an interdependent network of systems where change in one system affects the entire network. According to Heal Your Heart, a book by Dr. Michael Miller, just 9 factors contribute to 90% of heart attacks in the United States. The first eight are well known risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol. The ninth risk factor, however, are heart attacks in seemingly healthy populations. Miller goes on to say; the latest research indicates that an inability to deal effectively with stress is a direct contributor to heart disease. A recent review of all the medical and psychological literature on stress and coronary heart disease published between 1995 and 2012 reveals that without a doubt “psychological factors, including depression, anxiety, and stress” constitute their own, “independent risk factors for CHD.” In other words, stress is as harmful as diabetes, cigarette smoking, and a bacon double cheeseburger with a side of chili cheese fries.
The fight or flight response is our normal response to stressors. This response triggers the body to increase heart rate, squeeze blood vessels, and increase blood pressure to get more blood and oxygen to the brain, so that we can be focused and alert to react to whatever is causing the stress. The endothelium is a muscle that lines the inside of our blood vessels and releases toxic chemicals in response to stress to cause the blood vessels to become inflamed and constrict. If stress is chronic, or happening all the time, then our blood pressure and heart rate will stay high. As a result of the increased heart rate & blood pressure, chronic stress increases our risk of heart attack and heart disease. It's important to manage stress because it not only compounds the effect of all our unhealthy habits and risk factors but also because stress can kill you by itself. Ironically, smoking, drinking, drugs, and eating a whole pack of tasty cakes is how we attempt to relieve our stress. It’s like we stack death on top of death and make a big ole kill yo'self sandwich.
The good news is exercise has been scientifically proven to not only have a positive effect on our mental health but also fight against the negative physical effects of stress and anxiety. Earlier, I mentioned how stress causes chronic inflammation in the blood vessels which puts us at risk for cardiovascular disease. Exercise has the exact opposite effect on our blood vessels. When we exercise, we need oxygen to create energy from the carbs and fats we eat. Every working muscle will need this increased oxygen flow. For this to happen, we breathe faster and deeper and our hearts pump harder to pump more oxygenated blood throughout the body. The blood vessels relax and open to allow as much blood flow as possible. When we exercise regularly then our blood vessels stay relaxed and we see improvements in resting heart rate, blood pressure, and cardiac output (how much blood the heart pumps in a given time). The heart, the only muscle in our body that never gets to rest, gets stronger and you decrease your risk for a cardiac event.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, research has unveiled how addictive prescription drugs are when used to numb physical pain. One could argue that some victims of the opioid epidemic were also trying to numb a different kind of pain - a pain that doesn't always show physical symptoms but one that we feel in the depths of our souls. The pain that resurfaces every time we drive down a certain block or smell a distant smell or every time a particular song plays. The pain of watching your mother die from cancer or not knowing your deadbeat father. The pain of being broke or not being able to provide for your family. In Baltimore City, people experience endless and consistent trauma. Compound that trauma by the fact that it's easier to find scramble, coke and smack then it is to find a job application and you will find a community where its common place to see elders leaning over the bus stop in a pool of their own drool. The "epidemic" that has shaken the country- is business as usual where I'm from. Now that the government and healthcare industry are treating the opioid epidemic as a healthcare issue instead of a criminal one, we have an opportunity to find a cure.
When someone does drugs, the brain releases feel good chemicals called endorphins. Mayo Clinic says "opioids trigger the release of endorphins, your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters. Endorphins muffle your perception of pain and boost feelings of pleasure, creating a temporary but powerful sense of well-being." Endorphins are essentially the body’s natural painkillers. Opioids also trigger the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, cognition, motivation, and feelings of pleasure.
Exercise, specifically cardio exercises like jogging, skating, or dancing can trigger the brain to release the same endorphins released when someone uses drugs. This is called “runner's high”, where cardiovascular training can literally make you feel like your high off drugs. According to Web MD, "the endorphins released in your brain interact with the receptors in your brain to reduce your perception of pain while you run." Exercise also increases dopamine secretion in the brain which improves movement and rewards the body for exercising. Lastly, exercise promotes the release of endocannabinoids, the body's natural THC. These chemicals give the body the same calming sensation that marijuana produces. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, calls it "an exercise induced altered state of consciousness".
The most drug infested neighborhoods in Baltimore has opened methadone clinics to help wean people off heroin and other opioids by giving them less potent doses of the drug. The idea is to gradually decrease dosage over time. But what if we replaced methadone clinics with cardio gyms? Imagine an exercise facility where those struggling with addiction can go to use the body's natural drug supply to fight back. Support groups disguised as workout classes will allow for time to share challenges and accomplishments. Trainers can highlight and reward participants who break personal records or attend the most workouts.
The chemicals released during exercise in the brain are also important for helping the body combat stress, anxiety and depression, as well as boost self- esteem and improve sleep. It can even open the door for peer support. Exercise is a social and cultural experience just as much as it is a physical one. Exercising with your friends, going to a zumba class, joining a run club, or joining an intramural sports team, are all ways to find accountability partners that can help you through challenging and stressful times in your life.
I'm writing this article to challenge you to use exercise to manage stress, pain, trauma or to just clear your mind. I know it sounds crazy. Bills are due, you work a 9-5, and then you rush to daycare to pick up your child because they charge late fees by the minute. Some of you still have homework to do because you decided to go back to school in the evenings. Or maybe you just left Walmart and you’re checking your bank account trying to figure out how to make that last $62.50 stretch until next pay day. You’re tired and all you want to do is eat, put your feet up, and pour yourself a drink. The idea of going to the gym just stressed you out even more. You never hear anyone say, "It's been a long stressful day, I can't wait to go home and run a mile". But exercise is not like happy hour. It's not something you will get the sudden urge to do and you won’t crave it like you do french fries, at least not at first. Instead exercise is something you must build into your routine just like getting the kids dressed for school. You must plan for it, pack your bag the night before, and set 3 alarms. Over time it becomes something you enjoy. Your body will begin to reward you for exercise. It's also helpful to explore and find movement activities that you enjoy such as dancing, skating, yoga, or walking through the mall. Whatever you decide is your go-to movement medicine, be proactive and engulf yourself in the activity consistently. What you will find is that exercise can start to change your body from the inside out.
Miller, Michael. Heal Your Heart . Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/about-the-epidemic/index.html