Exercise and Your Mental Health

March 19, 2013

exercise improves mental health

Have you ever noticed that when you exercise you feel better? Why is this? Exercise has actually been proven to improve your mood and reduce your stress. When you think about how you are feeling, think holistically. Don't just look at your mood, stress, or other day-to-day events as individual entities; when it comes to your overall well-being, they all are connected. You can improve your mood and lower your stress, the key is to exercise. Exercise in combination with eating right, resting, and learning to take care of yourself will improve your overall health.

Start off easy with small goals.

If you are just starting to exercise set a small goal, for example to exercise once a week. Over time, increase to several times a week. To keep from getting bored, vary your exercise and try to exercise with a friend or, for example join a walking or running group. When you have made a commitment to exercise with someone else it's harder to not follow through. Keep an exercise schedule and plan out your exercise in the beginning of each week. Schedule it as if it is a meeting. Keeping a schedule will help motivate you and keep you on track. If you're exercising at least several times a week, you will see improvement week to week. Research findings back this up.

Exercise increases self-esteem and reduces stress.

Although exercise alone may not cure a serious mental health condition, it is a healthy adjunct to your mental health treatment. Studies have shown that consistently exercising increases self- esteem, decreases anxiety, reduces depression, improves your sleep, and helps you improve your overall outlook on life, as well as reduces worry and stress.

A Duke University study, after studying a group of individuals suffering from depression for 4 months, found that 60% of the participants who exercised for 30 minutes three times a week overcame their depression without using antidepressant medication. This is the same percentage rate as for those who only used medication in their treatment for depression. Even if you are not suffering from a mental health illness, regular exercise can reduce sadness, stress, tension and anger. Exercise can also improve your confidence and can prevent illness.

Exercise Outside.

Exercise outside when you can. It has been shown to be very helpful in reducing anxiety and sadness. Exercising out in nature can be both energizing and soothing at the same time. It can calm the mind and senses.

Be patient.

It can sometimes take several weeks to really feel the improvement. It's important to stick with it and choose exercises that are more strenuous to elevate your heart rate and increase blood flow. The good news is that some studies have shown that even short bursts of activity, as little as 8 minutes, help individuals feel better. This is good especially if you don't have time to spend hours at a gym.

Be Creative.

Be creative, try something new, and mix it up to add variety to your workout and keep it fun. Find exercises that allow you to vary the intensity within your workout. For example, if you like to bike, start off biking slowly and then increase and decrease your speed throughout your workout. This challenges you on a cardiovascular level.

So don't just think about exercise as a way to tone up or lose weight. Exercise causes natural chemical changes in your body that improve your mental health and your physical health. Whether you like to bike, run, walk, swim, kayak or rock climb set a goal and start exercising and ultimately you will feel better

Lisa Caplan is a licensed certified social worker in Maryland. She offers professional counseling services to those in need.

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