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Sweat and Sanity: Exercising For Your Mental Health

With the advance of technology and engineering, human beings are finding less need to move their physical bodies. In the last century, there has been a significant shift from manual labor such as manufacturing and farming to desk-based jobs that revolve around computer screens. Add remote working arrangements and pandemic lockdowns, and many people are not even walking ten minutes a day to and from the bus stop.

While the physical benefits of exercise are frequently discussed, we often overlook the equally important psychological benefits. Research has shown that physical activity can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as enhance learning and cognitive function. And it does not have to be intense either. Just thirty minutes of moderate activity has been shown to deliver these mental health benefits.

Movement as Medicine

So, how exactly can exercise assist with mental wellness?

Exercise aids to regulate the hormones that play a key role in our body’s stress response. The adrenal glands in the body naturally release stress hormones in response to stress or fear. However, if these hormones accumulate, we can suffer from sleeping problems, anxiety, or panic attacks. Physical exercise can help stimulate your body’s relaxation response and thus reduce stress levels.

Physical activity also increases endorphins, the ‘feel good’ chemical painkillers of your body. Endorphins are released from the brain’s pituitary gland during periods of pain, exercise, and orgasm. These chemicals are like natural morphine, assisting to relieve pain while inducing feelings of pleasure. Is it any wonder then, that exercise can make you feel good?

Outside of exercise euphoria, physical activity has been shown to calm anxiety and distract us from negative thoughts and feelings. When you are exercising, it is difficult for the mind to dwell on problems and doomsday scenarios. The body takes up all your attention and the focus is on the activity at hand. This break in the cycle of constant worrying can facilitate the management of depression and anxiety.

Regular physical activity can improve your self-esteem and sense of control as well. By achieving goals and reaching milestones—however small—people who exercise regularly feel pride and greater self-worth. Through investing time and effort in themselves, they begin to feel more confident in their value as individuals.

Finally, exercise can be a great way to socialize and meet new people. Social interaction can provide emotional support and useful advice, influence us to make healthier behavior choices, improve our motivation, and help us cope with stress. Whether it is meeting in the gym or playing a team sport, exercising with others brings bonus benefits.

 I Like the Way You Move

With a host of exercises to choose from, it can be intimidating to start. Here are some popular choices.

Walking has got to be the simplest and most affordable exercise of all. Whether you stroll from your house to the store or have a wander around the woods, walking is a gentle and low-impact exercise that most people can enjoy. It is an accessible choice for those who are in poor physical health or are prone to chest tightness due to anxiety.

If you are a little bit above the action grade for walking, then try running! Runner’s high is a phenomenon whereby runners feel a rush and mental boost from the endocannabinoids that are released during the activity. Practicing mindfulness during running, such as tuning into the rhythm of your footfalls, can significantly reduce depression as well.

Speaking of mindfulness, we cannot omit the obvious option of yoga. The renowned positive effects of yoga come from the mind-body connection and the way that conscious breath control is used to help participants ‘come unstuck’, both physically and mentally. Yoga is also very accessible as you only need a yoga mat to start and online classes have become abundant since the pandemic lockdowns.

Another fun exercise you can do in your own home is dancing. Moving to the rhythm of music can lead you to forget your troubles and embrace the freedom of movement. Dancing relieves stress, improves posture, and increases your self-esteem. Best of all, there are many free dance-along videos available on YouTube. Aerobic-focused dance classes are available for those who are a little more serious about sweating.

While exercising at home is convenient, given the choice, you should always spend time exercising outdoors. Sunshine can prompt the release of serotonin and endorphins, giving you a better mood and more energy. Furthermore, sun exposure during the day prompts the production of melatonin which in turn regulates your wake-sleep cycle. However, it is important to have prescription sunglasses if you need them, as excessive UV exposure may damage your eyes.

A perfect exercise for those who love the great outdoors is cycling. Cycling is an aerobic, rhythmic, and low-impact exercise that can easily be incorporated into your weekday commutes. On the weekends, ride with fellow cyclists out of the city and enjoy the views. A possible plus point is that the exercise has been reported to benefit bedroom activities as the same key muscles are used!

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, it does not matter what kind of physical activity you engage in, just that you do a little bit of it on a regular basis. Just remember that every active attempt to exercise is an improvement on nothing.

Focus on activities you enjoy and are comfortable doing. Make exercise a social activity or just be active with your family. A consistent exercise routine is a powerful prescription to combat stress and mental health challenges and improve your wellbeing. 


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