Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Your overall health is mind, body, and soul, working together as one.

Lets chat about the mental health benefits of exercise.

When I look back recently and reflect on days that I am the most optimal, the least frustrated, everything is going right, nothing is too big to conquer, just having an amazing day, I see those are days that I have taken time first thing in the day to focus on my health. My perfect mornings run something along the lines of waking up at 5am naturally, without an alarm clock, having 2 cups of coffee while thumbing through everything mindless on my phone, then updating my goal list. Once the coffee is pumping through my veins, I want to work out. Yes, I said that correctly, I WANT to work out. After that, depending on the time, I can get a few more minutes of quiet time with a bath. Or if the kiddo and husband are starting to wake up, then just a shower. These are the mornings that start my days for success and productivity.

I feel physically energized, mentally prepared, and spiritually in a place of peace. Sure, most days are not perfect days. There are days I do not get everything done. But, my balance here is to start off the day in the right frame of mind. The days I do not focus on my overall health are the days that I mostly feel I am always one step forward three steps back, nagging, fussing, irritated, and stressed.

What is the correlation between physical fitness and mental health?

Exercise and mental health are linked together in a strong way. There are many mental health benefits of exercise. Physical exercise types are associated with significant reductions in mental health burdens, such as anxiety, stress, and depression. I want to clarify that if you are experiencing mental health burdens in these areas, please seek professional help. Physical health is just a tool to help you through, not a replacement or professional therapy help. I am a true believer in professional mental health therapy for complete healing.

I have found along my journey that three to five times per week was associated with the best mental health improvement for myself. Don’t get me wrong, I am not running marathons five times a week. My workouts vary from a 15-minute upper body weights, to a low intensity 30-minute step video, to a 40-minute strength training video, all done from the comfort of my living room. I’m not spending hours out of my day.

I also found in my journey that fewer than three times per week or more than six times per week had small reductions in mental health burden. If I had physical activity less than 3 days it wasn’t consistent enough to make a habit. To make it something I wanted to do. If I worked out more than six days, I was so burned out, I felt worse than the benefits had to offer.

The goal here is to just start off small, and work your way up, both in number of days and length of activity. Find something you like to do to start with and go from there. Even if you start by walking 2 laps around your house. Seriously!

Without exercise, you can feel disconnected

How does your body feel when you’re under stress or anxiety?

Exercise and anxiety

Exercise is a natural and effective anti-anxiety treatment. Anything that gets you moving can help, but you’ll get a bigger benefit if you pay attention instead of zoning out. As in most things in life, you get out of it what you put into it. I find that my anxiety is reduced while working out because I am not focused on my thoughts, worries, and emotions. I am focused on the workout I am doing at that moment. I honestly do some of my best breathing when I am focused on a work-out, and not on my fears of today (or tomorrow). It keeps me in the present.

You don’t have to spend hours in a gym. I don’t even have a gym membership. Long before the pandemic, I was more motivated to do home workouts. I also felt more anxious trying to figure out how all the machines worked, I felt anxious when everyone wanted to chit-chat, I felt anxious the whole time. It just wasn’t for me. But if you are someone who prefers the social setting a gym can offer, or you are motivated by group accountability, I do encourage you to find a gym to meet your needs.

Exercise and stress

Exercise for me, is an effective way to break my cycle of stress. Physical activity helps to relieve tension in the body and symptoms like muscle tension, back/neck pain, or headaches. You will notice a difference between the muscles you worked out, versus muscles that are tense from stress and tension.

Again, while I am working out, I find that being focused on my work-out and being present in the moment, I am not stressed out over the folded laundry on the couch I have to put away. I am not stressed about my daughter’s toys that weren’t fully put away the night before. I am not stressed about what I am going to plan for dinner. I am not stressed about my work project. When I am working out, I am not stressed – what an amazing feeling to start, or end, your day!

Physical activity also releases chemicals that are good for the mind, as well as releasing endorphins in the brain. Remember when I mentioned earlier I actually want to work out to start my day? It is because of this state of ‘feeling good reward’ I receive after a great work-out. Once working out becomes a habit for you, and you start to feel the all around benefits, you will begin to crave it for this reward. I never understood how people would say, ‘I feel more energized after working out.’ But it is true. I feel more energized after working out (and less stressed). You, too, will find your connection to the physical and mental health benefits of exercise.

What are the mental health benefits of exercise?

Exercise and depression

I have found that exercise can be a powerful intervention for depression as it is a distraction from negative thoughts. When I find myself drifting from my routine, I begin to crave being sedentary. When I become sedentary for too long, I start to feel negative thoughts and I become an ‘Eeyore’ very quickly. I feel sad. I feel nobody cares. I feel I am doing all the work for everyone. I feel lonely. My energy level and attention to my physical and mental health is a direct correlation to my self-love. Nobody around me changed. I changed. I am responsible for my emotions, feelings, and health.

When I make the choice to snap back into routine, I can turn around those feelings in about 1-2 days. You can unravel pretty quickly, yet you can get back on track pretty quickly too. These are the choices you are making to be the balanced person you can be.

Again, exercise is only a tool to help you on your journey. If you are feeling emotions of anxiety, stress, depression, please also seek professional mental health therapy for full healing.

Even a little activity is better than nothing

One mental pitfall I found early on is ‘well I don’t have time to do a full workout, so I’ll just skip today.’ Please learn from my mistakes, this is not the right answer. If you don’t have time for 15 or 30 minutes of exercise, or if your body tells you to take a break after 5 or 10 minutes, that’s okay too. Even just a bit of stretching or 10 jumping jacks is better than nothing at all. There are plenty of stretching tutorials free on You-Tube!

You might find it is still hard to get started, to get motivated. That is normal. Maybe you can have a friend or family member start with you, or you can become accountability partners. Maybe you could start activities that get you moving (walk around a mall, easy nature walk, gardening, parking your car further away at the store, so you take a few more steps, etc.) Great creative with how you start moving. You don’t need to jump in and buy 5 aerobic DVDs to start moving.

The more you exercise, the more energy you’ll have and eventually feel ready for a little more activity. After a couple of weeks of regular activity, you should feel the mental health benefits of exercise.

Everyday tips

  • Take it slow, this is a journey.
  • Don’t beat yourself over it. You will have strong days, you will have weak days.
  • If you have a bad day today, make the choice to have a better day tomorrow.
  • Find the right time for you to dedicate to yourself (morning, afternoon, evening)
  • Schedule this time in your day.
  • Make YOUR health (physical, mental, and emotional) a priority.

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