Exercise is great for your body and overall health but it’s also wonderful for your brain. The mental health benefits of exercise are often overlooked, with exercise largely treated as a conduit to achieving a certain body shape. And, when you don’t conform to this “ideal” shape, it can make you feel left out and hesitant to engage with exercise.
Instead of focusing on how exercise can influence shape, we should be celebrating how moving your body can do wonders for your mind. Research has shown exercise can be as effective as talking therapy and medication in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. But, it is one of the most underutilised ways of managing mental health.
Thanks largely to diet culture and the influence society has on how we feel about our bodies, exercise is commonly used as a form of punishment by many people for the food they have consumed. Separating the link between food, exercise and your self-worth is a tough one to break but by changing the motivation for exercise and centring it around improved mental health could prove to be helpful.
The mental health benefits of exercise
Working up a sweat and moving your body positively influences your mind in a number of ways. One of the most common positive outcomes of exercise is the promotion of feel-good chemicals in the brain including endorphins and serotonin. There’s nothing quite like that post-exercise endorphin high!
According to Beyond Blue, exercise also helps you sleep better and feel more energised during the day and engaging in the practice regularly has been shown to reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression while the social element of it can also help you feel less isolated.
To reap these benefits, the recommendation is to engage in 30 minutes of “vigorous” exercise at least five times a week. The exercise is considered vigorous if it is hard to maintain a constant conversation while exercising.
But, as Beyond Blue has pointed out, the hardest part of exercise is getting started, especially when you’re experiencing a mental health condition like depression which can make it hard to get out of bed. But, any exercise is better than no exercise and getting up and going for a walk can have a big impact on your mental health.
Listen to what your body needs
Even with the best of intentions and using improved mental health as motivation, finding the incentive to work out can be hard. But, don’t feel like you have to be attending HIIT classes or running 10kms to be considered to be exercising “properly”. There’s no right way and you have to find what works for you.
If you hate running and don’t flourish in the gym, find something else that feels engaging. Practices like yoga and Pilates are great for your body and brain and both can be done from the comfort of your own home. Otherwise, swimming, tennis, walking and skipping are all great ways to get moving.
Ultimately, your body should tell you what it needs. On some occasions, that might be a gentle walk around the block, while on others, it might be a skipping session that works up a sweat.
“Ask yourself how you are feeling and what your body needs at that moment,” Peter Just, Ph.D., lead trainer at digital training app Freeletics, told Bustle. “Sometimes your body needs to sweat it out during a tough HIIT session or long run, and other times your body will require less physical grit and you should simply go for a walk or listen to a meditation session instead.”
Don’t push yourself to exercise when you’re not feeling it
Even with the hope to boost the feel-good hormones in your brain, sometimes exercising just feels hard, and for some people can create a lot of anxious feelings and even guilt, so on those days, you should take it easy and show yourself some kindness. Exercise doesn’t need to be a punishment and shouldn’t be used as one.
“Knowing where the line is between finding intrinsic motivation out of self-care and nourishment versus motivation from rigidity and punishment is not always easy,” Pilates instructor, Helen Phelan, told Bustle. “Even if your initial urge to workout came from a negative place, if you can dial it back and take a moment to find another reason that is in actual service of your holistic health, then that’s a win.”
Instead of beating yourself up when motivation is lacking, Beyond Blue recommends treating “each day as a fresh start, and remind yourself that it’s human to drop the ball occasionally.”