How To Use Exercise To Boost Your Mental Health

Many people I know say they don’t have time to exercise. Between work, school, commute, family, and the basic errands of life such as keeping your house clean, eating and going to the bank… It can be really hard to know when to fit exercise in. If you feel like you’re not getting enough sleep, waking up early to go for a run seems absurd. So many people are so tired when they get home from work that all they feel they can do is have dinner, relax for a bit and go to bed. Weekends are there to catch up with sleep, friends, and housework. If you’re lucky you can fit in a road trip or some fun activity. Gym? Laughable.

It’s a real shame because working out consistently can have a tremendous effect on your health – both physical and mental/emotional. The ways in which exercise benefits our physical body is a lot more obvious – we strengthen our muscles, our heart, our lungs. Exercise keeps our weight balanced, and helps protect us from diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Stronger muscles take longer to deteriorate, so fitter people often experience fewer pains and aches as they age.

The benefit to our emotional and mental state is a lot more difficult to see. Here are some ways exercise boosts your mental health.

  1. Healthy body, healthy mind. We can’t separate our physical and mental health. When we are healthy – that includes exercising and eating right – our bodies’ systems are working in sync. That means are stress hormones are more balanced, our sleep is deeper, and our digestion is working better. On the other hand, when we’re stressed, we’re more likely to get less sleep, which in turn can lead to an impairment in our immune system, making us more prone to viruses and disease. We have to strike a delicate balance – in order to take care of our minds, we need to take care of our bodies, and the other way around.
  2. The post-exercise boost. Many people experience what is called a “runner’s high” – a short-term feeling of wellbeing and even euphoria, for several hours after a workout. Endorphins are suspected to be behind this, with other neurotransmitters that are linked to happiness having their part – specifically dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
  3. Natural dopamine balance. Our body releases dopamine during pleasurable activities or activities that our brain wants to reinforce – activities thatare perceived to be good for our survival, such as eating and sex. Today, we get most of our dopamine from things like video games, social media – things that are immediate and that are not that difficult to achieve. When we see that someone has hit “like” on a picture we posted, the reward centers in our brains light up.
  4. Self-esteem. There’s something to be said for how good we feel when we set and achieve goals – not just the physical dopamine boost but how it makes us look at ourselves. Knowing that we can stick with something even when it’s not difficult and that we can choose things for ourselves that might not be pleasurable at the moment but that is good for us in the long run, are benchmarks of self-love. As we become adults (and it really is a lifelong process) one of the most important things we need to learn is how to parent ourselves. Just as a parent needs to make sure their child showers, goes to school or eats nutritious food even if the child does not always want to, so too do we need to learn to fill that role for ourselves. Tap yourself on the shoulder after an intense workout to remind yourself that you are proud of yourself for doing whatever it takes to keep you happy and healthy. Seeing the physical body change can help boost self-esteem even more. Just remember, that while losing weight or gaining muscle can e great, to not make it your only goal.

So now you know some of the benefits and you might be asking yourself, how to bring exercise into your life to boost your mental health? Here are some tips.

  1. Make time for it. It may seem obvious, but some people keep waiting for motivation to work out and life just passes by. You go to work, thinking you’ll exercise after, but then a friend asks for help with something, and after that, there are the dishes… Marking a clear time in our calendar when you are going to work out helps set the intention and ensure you will actually do it.
  2. Try different things. There might be a good reason all your friends are raving about Crossfit. Give it a shot. If you’re not feeling it, though, don’t fret. There are endless forms of exercise. Many gyms offer several types of classes – pilates, kickboxing, yoga, TRX… Go wild, trying them all until you find something that works for you.
  3. Make plans with a friend. Many people find it easier to go through with commitments we make to other people than ones we make to ourselves. If you know your friend is waiting for you at 7 to go for a run, you’re less likely to bail than if you knew you’d only be letting yourself down. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in this – it’s your health!
  4. Choose consistency over exhaustion. A mistake a lot of people make is going to the gym once every few weeks, and then going super hard when they do. While it often comes from a place of wanting to “make up” for not going more regularly, it ends up doing more harm. If your experience of going to the gym will be mainly negative, you’re less likely to go again. It’s better to pace yourself and be more gentle with your body while working on building a regular exercise routine. 

Come exercise with me in this video. I took a day off school and work to go to the gym, to set an intention to be dedicated to getting back to health.

Disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended or recommended for patients or other lay persons or as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Patients must always consult a qualified health care professional regarding their diagnosis and treatment. Mental health conditions are complex, people differ widely in their conditions and responses, and interactions with other conditions and treatments are best evaluated by a physical examination and consultation with a qualified clinician.

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