Exercise & Your Mental Health: Move a Muscle, Change a Thought Pattern
Updated: Apr 7
With so many people now encouraging and developing “wellness” in schools, relationships and work spaces, it all can seem overwhelming. Usually we look at the world of wellness in two categories; mental and physical wellness. However, what if we told you the two categories are actually intertwined with each other? The science is becoming more and more clear. One of the secrets to regaining that mental clarity, resilience and confidence may lie in our physical health through exercise.
To FEEL better we must DO better.
It’s commonly known that regular exercise can improve a person’s physical health and physique. Staying active can help a person feel more energetic throughout the day and sleep better at night. However, did you also know that routine physical activity can be a potent remedy for many common mental health problems?
Many people report feeling less tense, anxious and depressed after a round of physical activity. We have discussed some of this in previous articles on our site. Scientific studies show that exercise can help alleviate the symptoms of mild to moderate depression just as effectively as pharmaceutical antidepressants. A report by Harvard School of Public Health found that 15 minutes of jogging or one hour of walking per day reduces the risk of major depression by more than 25%.
Exercise has also been shown to help those who suffer with acute stress. When one focuses on the sensations generated by physical activity, it helps the nervous system relieve the initial immobilizing stress response that often comes along with PTSD and anxiety provoking triggers. Additionally, exercise can help a person take their mind off their worries, feel more confident, get more social interaction and cope in a healthy way.
So we know exercise is an effective tool in treating a host of mental health issues, but how exactly does it all work? What’s the science behind it? The answer lies in a special class of brain chemicals called endorphins. During exercise, natural chemicals in the brain called endogenous cannabinoids are released, which can enhance a person’s sense of well-being and even create a feeling of euphoria. Exercise also increases levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. It improves and normalizes neurotransmitter levels leading to enhanced mood and energy, reduced stress, deeper relaxation, improved mental clarity, learning, insight, memory and cognitive functioning, enhanced intuition, creativity, assertiveness, enthusiasm for life, improved social health and relationships, higher self-esteem and increased spiritual connection.
It can be hard for a person to implement proper exercise into their schedule. Careers and family life can be demanding and time consuming, and energy can be scarce. Here are some simple yet effective ways to help you start a good exercise routine:
Set Reasonable Goals. When starting a new routine, focus on small progressive steps as opposed to making a dramatic change. Starting with a few days a week commitment is often more realistic and achievable than committing to a new rigid daily routine. See our other article about New beginnings.
Find a workout buddy. Working out with a friend or a family member is a great tool to keep you motivated. Staying accountable to a partner helps with those mornings when we may “just not be feeling it.”
Try activities that you enjoy. Don't be afraid to try new things when it comes to exercise. Just because you have heard great things about one particular exercise doesn't mean it is for you. If you don't think you are a runner, try a spin class. If you don't like to lift weights, maybe find a fun exercise class (with that friend). If you love walking your dog or biking with your kids, but never find the time for it, try to commit to that. Your kids and dog will thank you!
Be gentle with yourself. Whatever you choose, remind yourself you are starting something new and recognize the efforts you are making. We all make more progress with positive reinforcement as opposed to negative reinforcement, so make sure to praise the efforts you are making no matter how small you may think they are.
The verdict is in on the relationship between exercise and mental health: The two go together hand in hand…or more like foot in sneaker! If your mental health is important to you, try to implement regular physical activity into your daily life. You may even want to consider bringing some exercise into your next appointment with your therapist if they are open to it. You’ll start to notice some amazing changes and improvements. Life is all about keeping it moving!
Submitted by Gordon Gooding, LCSW