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Exercise & Mental Health

When things get bad, everyone tells you to exercise.

“It always helps me to take a workout class — just to sweat a little"

“Come to the gym with me!”

“You need the endorphins.”

“How have you moved your body today?”

“You're down because you don’t exercise!”

Although our supports may mean well they might not know how getting out of bed is exhausting, how panic attacks occupy your waking hours, how everything just hurts. How your only relief is the cocoon of blankets that protected me from having to live my life.

Numerous studies have found that physical exercise is meaningfully and significantly associated with self-reported mental health improvement. Exercise, in the moment, causes the release of endorphins (the feeling of “runners high”). Exercise can also increase levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. It improves and normalizes neurotransmitter levels, which ultimately helps us feel mentally healthy. Other important benefits include enhanced mood and energy; reduced stress; deeper relaxation; improved mental clarity, learning, insight, memory and cognitive functioning; enhanced intuition, creativity, assertiveness and enthusiasm for life; and improved social health and relationships, higher self-esteem and increased spiritual connection. But new habits do not emerge overnight. They come with gradual changes made on your own terms.

Starting to make these changes when you are feeling good makes it easier to keep them up if your mental health declines. Here are some tips to help get you started, change your thinking, and overcome barriers.

1. Believe in Yourself

To receive the full benefits of exercise we must first believe that exercise can heal body, mind and soul. Without believing in what you’re doing, you will likely receive less benefit.

2. Exercise as a Family

Family has a big influence on how we perceive exercise and mental health. Family beliefs can either promote or impair mental health. Exercising as a family not only gets the entire family moving to reap the benefits of exercise but also models healthy beliefs about physical activity and improves family relationships. It would also benefit you to get moving with your friends or significant other. Knowing we have shared values with our supports helps us to stay motivated and held accountable.

3. Get Motivated

Motivation, or rather lack of it, is probably the biggest block to exercise for mental health. We know we should exercise. We may even want to exercise, but we often can’t make ourselves do it. Remember that motivation is a skill that can be learned and improved upon.

4. Change How You Think about Exercise

What thoughts do you have about exercise? What promotes physical activity? What holds you back? As we identify these thoughts, we can choose to change them. One tool for this is called a “thought record.” As we list our thoughts and feelings about exercise on a thought record, we have the power to question and change our thoughts. We can put new, healthier thoughts into our brains—thoughts like, “I know if I go for a walk, I will feel more energized and less depressed.”

7. Overcome Roadblocks

While exercising can be physically challenging, exercise is just as much, or even more, about mental fortitude. What are your biggest roadblocks to exercise? If you look carefully, you’ll see that almost all of them have to do with mental perceptions and beliefs. Lack of time or energy? Not being able to get to the gym? Perhaps you face the challenge of having young children, or a job that’s taking over your life. Whatever the roadblocks, you can overcome them as you acknowledge and challenge them.

7. Set Manageable Goals & Expectations

When getting started on a plan to move your body, don’t try to become a marathon runner or body builder overnight. It’s important to keep goals and expectations manageable, so that we actually follow through with them. Setting goals too high may result in us feeling overwhelmed or burnt out, leading us to give up. Even something as simple as walking can give you all the benefits of exercise! Keep your expectations manageable and start with small goals - you’ll find that you will be encouraged when you meet your goals!


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