Exercise is so much more than six-pack abs and fitting into society’s unrealistic standard of body-shape! I know it can be hard to believe how essential exercise is, not just for our physical health, but for our mental health, as well! We currently live a predominantly sedentary lifestyle in modern society, BUT, our bodies were always designed to MOVE! There are MANY ways that exercise benefits mental health and in this post, I’ll be sharing the top 5!
Before we had many modern conveniences, both women and men were incredibly physically active throughout their daily routines: household chores, walking to get from here to there, gardening, and even cooking from scratch was a full-body endeavor. Now, we can sit for hours and hours at a time! Even if you know all about the importance of exercise, knowing we “should” exercise doesn’t necessarily mean we will exercise! In my work as a counselor and wellness coach, I’ve observed this huge gap between knowing what we should do and actually doing these things. And this is true in many different areas of life, as well. I, myself, am definitely guilty of this at times!
I actually come from a family where my parents and sibling all love to exercise and I was the one trying to figure out what I was somehow missing… At first, exercise felt like a form of torture to me! What I’ve come to realize, after almost 20 years of trying different styles of exercise is that finding the RIGHT forms of exercise that resonate with you is ESSENTIAL to making exercise a regular part of your routine. The wrong styles of exercise will feel like absolute torture and that “healthy” new habit will get kicked to the curb in no time.
So, my biggest tip that I really stress in my Guide to Losing Weight with Hashimoto’s Disease & Hormonal Imbalances is to explore MANY different types and styles of exercise until you find what you truly, really ENJOY doing. Hint: when you really enjoy something, you’ll lose track of time, whereas if you don’t enjoy something, time stands still. Of course, there will always be some days that you’re just not that into it, but you finish your workout because the end result is worth it, however, for the most part, I’m confident you can find a style that you really love and look forward to doing on most days.
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The good thing is that the market is SO saturated with exercise workouts in all styles, forms, short/long workouts, low impact, high impact, pre-natal, post-natal, cardio, strength training, yoga, pilates, dance, fusion style workouts, etc., you’re bound to find a style you enjoy! Our sedentary lifestyles have led us into a vicious cycle regarding overall health issues, chronic pain, increased anxiety, depression, and weight gain that slowly creeps up over time.
Before I get into 5 Ways Exercise Benefits Mental Health, I want to quickly share an experience I had that completely changed my entire perception of exercise, while also giving me the motivation I needed to find a way to make it work for me. When I was 15 years old (19 years ago now!), I was in an accident where I fell nearly 30 feet off a cliff. I was in intensive care for 5 days, had a head injury and a collapsed lung, but no broken bones, except for a fractured pelvis and spraining my ankle. Throughout my teen years and well into adulthood, I’ve battled chronic depression and anxiety, as well.
This accident led to chronic back pain and I attempted all forms of physical therapy (which was never enough to really address the root issue), as well as an assortment of prescription medication prescribed by my doctor at the time to manage the chronic pain. Finally, around age 20, I had enough of being told I would be in pain for the rest of my life. I was thin at the time, so I didn’t feel a calling to exercise to lose weight, however, I decided then and there that I would address my pain on a holistic level: from the source.
Chronic pain usually has an underlying issue and my back pain was worsened by having a weak core, therefore, strengthening my core muscles (the muscles in my abdomen, lower-mid back, pelvis, hips) all work together to keep one’s back healthy and balanced. If any of these muscles are weak, it creates an imbalance that leads to chronic pain because one side of the body tries to make up for the weaker side.
To make a long story short, I stumbled upon Kundalini Yoga, which is a form of yoga that incorporates more movement rather than the static poses you see in traditional yoga. I FELL IN LOVE and poured myself into these workouts, which literally work on both strengthening and stretching muscles for flexibility, fluidity, and ease of movement. I found this to be incredibly stress-relieving and felt a lift in my overall mood on a level I had never experienced before. AND, my chronic back pain that doctors told me I would always have, diminished significantly next to nothing! The only time my pain came back was when I stopped exercising for more than a couple of days. I need to strengthen my core and stretch on a daily basis or the pain comes back to this day (worse than ever now that I’ve had a child and am now in my 30’s).
This experience led me down the path to Holistic Wellness, which is all about finding balance in all areas of life, as well as getting to the root causes of each problem we face. Conventional Medicine addresses symptoms, whereas alternative medicine addresses the underlying causes of disease. This is how I began my journey to ultimately become a licensed counselor and certified wellness coach. I, myself, am living proof of the benefits of exercise, not only for chronic pain, but for reducing anxiety and depression!
I also want to quickly note that chronic pain and depression/anxiety can be linked, as well. The more pain we feel on a daily basis, this certainly impacts our mental health, our perception of ourselves, and our motivation to reach for and attain our goals. On the flip side, the more depressed and anxious we feel, the more we tap into other negative feelings, like aches and pains, headaches, etc., and we feel pain to a greater degree in turn.
So, let’s get into some major benefits!
5 Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health
- Exercise releases feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. Decreased levels of these uplifting neurotransmitters can lead to increased anxiety levels and depression. Exercise promotes all kinds of changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and a sense of well-being. It also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals in your brain that energize your spirits and make you feel good. Studies have found exercise can be just as effective as antidepressant medication, without all the nasty side effects! Exercise can also serve as a distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression.
- Exercise serves as a physical outlet to relieve pent up stress, tension, and anxiety. The more we move, the more we release tension we’ve been holding onto (oftentimes, tension we didn’t even realize we had!). Tension leads to increased stress and is a downhill spiral from there. Tension from stress shows up physically in various ways, such as: stomachaches, neck tension, back pain, headaches, muscle cramps, diarrhea, insomnia, tightness in your chest, heartburn, frequent urination. It’s important to have outlets, such as exercise, to de-stress on a daily basis to stop this cycle. Physical activity helps to relax the muscles and relieve tension in the body. Since the body and mind are so closely linked, when your body feels better so, too, will your mind.
- Exercise is a natural anti-anxiety treatment, as it relieves tension and stress, boosts physical and mental energy (increasing ability to focus on tasks), and enhances well-being through the release of endorphins. Anything that gets you moving your body can help, but you’ll get a bigger benefit if you pay attention instead of zoning out. To amp up the effects of exercise, make it an active form of Mindfulness Meditation! For example, notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the wind on your skin. By adding this mindfulness element—really focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise—you’ll not only improve your physical condition faster, but you may also be able to interrupt the flow of constant worries running through your head. It’s a win-win!
- Exercise significantly improves overall quality of sleep, reduces insomnia, and reduces the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. We recharge our bodies during sleep, which is why getting enough sleep, as well as quality sleep, is essential in achieving balance within the body.
- ADHD and/or a general inability to stay focused on tasks has become an epidemic in our modern world, for both children, as well as adults. We have constant distractions at our fingertips 24/7 and our stress levels are through the roof as feelings of being overwhelmed take over on a daily basis. Exercising regularly is one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce the symptoms of ADHD and improve concentration, motivation, memory, and mood. Physical activity immediately boosts the brain’s dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels—all of which affect focus and attention. In this way, exercise works in much the same way as ADHD medications such as Ritalin and Adderall. As an added bonus, once we’re able to focus on tasks for longer periods of time, the more we can accomplish, which feeds into our sense of self-worth and achievement. Our physical efforts enhance our mental well-being in undeniable ways!
To recap: explore different styles of exercise until you find a style that you truly enjoy! I’ll be doing a follow up post with a list of different styles to inspire you (so be sure to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on new posts!). Also, I want to mention that people often associate gyms with exercise as if we have to go to a gym in order to exercise, which is NOT the case! During the pandemic, gyms have been closed here in NJ for 6 months now, but even prior to the pandemic, I’ve never gone to a gym and have been exercising regularly for almost 15 years now!
If you’re tight on space and short on time (my life story), just move aside the coffee table, roll out your workout mat and get to it with at-home workouts via DVD or Youtube. I list my favorite workouts in my Guide to Losing Weight with Hashimoto’s Disease Post Partum Post! Don’t be afraid to get creative! Go explore a new hiking trail or go for a simple walk in a park surrounded by greenery and fresh air! Have you always wanted to see what running is all about? Hit the pavement and explore your town! You can even take your laptop/tablet and do your workouts on a mat in your yard so you can be outside while also getting your workout in.
The body and mind are intrinsically and undeniably linked, which is why exercise and moving our bodies more, in general, has a profound effect on our overall mental health, as well as our physical health. Holistic Wellness is all about achieving our greatest form of Whole Health: mind, body, and soul.
I hope you’ve found some inspiration to move your body as part of your daily routine for ultimate wellness! Take time to nurture your body and mind each day; your quality of life depends on it and you’ll be so glad that you did. Always remember, with the right mindset, magic blossoms all around you!
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