Brain & Body: Mental Health Benefits Of Exercise

Mental health and physical health are often viewed as independent aspects of health. When it comes to the mind, one engages in self-care or therapy to strengthen emotions and ease worry. When the body needs some work, a few trips to the gym or a daily walk might do the trick. However, mental and physical health should be viewed as harmonious. Exercise can have some major mental health benefits. 

Challenges of Joining Mental and Physical Health

For someone suffering from a mental illness, it can be difficult to even get out of bed. Adding exercise to the equation may seem impossible. Because of the unique set of challenges that come with each, joining the two takes time, patience, and additional support.

A lack of energy, fear of failure, or other obstacles might prevent someone from effectively using exercise as a coping mechanism for mental illness. Body image is also an important factor as individuals may be self-conscious or anxious about what they will look like while exercising, avoiding it altogether. Exercising in a small or crowded space with mirrored walls can also heighten anxiety for someone who feels they are “on display” while exercising. 

mental health benefits


The Relation Between Exercise and Specific Disorders

The impact of mental disorders can weaken the body as well as the mind. Though exercising regularly is often a difficult task, realizing the positive effects it can have on mental health may motivate someone to get started. 

  • Depression – Exercise as a treatment for depression can release endorphins, “energetic” chemicals that promote neural growth, reduce inflammation, and encourage new cerebral activity patterns. One study found that running for 15 minutes or walking for an hour can reduce the risk of depression by 26%
  • Anxiety – Physical activity can be done using the grounding technique, a helpful method of relaxing an overworked mind by focusing on physical sensations — such as feet hitting the ground, breathing rhythms, or feeling the wind on your skin throughout a workout routine.
  • Stress – During times of stress, muscles get tense and heartburn, stomachaches or other physical discomfort can occur. Stretching and yoga can release tension and aches so you have a chance to decompress. 
  • ADHD – If lack of focus, concentration, and attention is an issue, exercise could replace medications such as Ritalin and Adderall to boost dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
  • Trauma and PTSD – As a response to a traumatic event and PTSD, the body can become immobilized as the incident is recalled. Focusing on your body’s movements during exercise may help with feeling grounded and present before the mind starts to wander.
  • Insomnia – Depending on the time of day, the movement might be able to regulate sleeping patterns. An HIIT (high-intensity interval training) best workout in the morning or a yoga session in the evening can promote better sleep. 
  • Dementia and cognitive decline – Physical activity may reduce risk factors for those who have developed the disease. For people with dementia, daily physical activity can reduce the risk of worsening depression and dementia symptoms by 20-30%. In addition, physical activity may reduce the risk of developing cognitive decline in people who currently do not have dementia.

mental health benefits


How to Get Moving

Choosing physical activity as a defense against mental illness is a great step for preventing future issues. The important takeaway is that movement can be integrated into anyone’s lifestyle and it doesn’t have to be a dramatic change. Though the first step is probably the hardest, consider these tips to make the process run smoother.  

  • Make time for movement. Though your schedule may seem packed with social obligations, professional endeavors, and personal hobbies, set aside time for small, manageable sessions. Moderate exercise simply means you’re breathing heavier than normal, not being out of breath, and feeling your body get warmer rather than overheated or sweaty.
  • Consider the logistics. Perhaps you can’t make it to a gym but want some accountability. Figure out the cost of equipment and whether a commitment to any schedule changes can be made. Find a friend who will support the journey and keep you aligned with the objective.
  • Be honest about your goals. Incorporating fitness into any lifestyle should be done with your mental state in mind. Changes likely won’t happen overnight, so starting small may be an encouragement to keep going. 
  • Implement it in daily life. You don’t need to join a crowded gym in order to be more active. It can be as simple as taking the stairs or going on a walk during a lunch break. If watching television is a way to de-stress, try stretching during commercials. 
  • Figure out what works for you. Forcing engagement in a difficult exercise might decrease the likelihood of accomplishing goals. Think about what part of the body you want to target and whether you feel motivated to work out indoors or outdoors. 

Also Read: 4 Natural and Healthy Ways to Relax

Staying Motivated Long-Term

Some days might feel more overwhelming than others. If there are certain days where physical activity cannot occur, don’t feel discouraged. The small victories provide a sense of accomplishment toward taking control of mental health. If you prefer to try a holistic method of self-care, read our guide for combatting mental health with exercise. 

Author bio: Dan Borucki is an ISSA Certified Fitness Coach and Personal Trainer at Reclaim Fitness. Borucki strives to encourage, support, and challenge his clients to feel stronger, healthier, and more confident. 

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