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Here Is How Exercising Can Help Mental Health

A woman practices yoga outdoors.
PeopleImages.com – Yuri A/Shutterstock.com

Feeling sluggish, irritated, and unmotivated? Starting up a regular exercise routine might be exactly what you need to improve your mood, focus, and overall mental health.

Lifesavvy spoke with Marsha Cox, M.A.Ed. licensed professional counselor at Lifebulb to gather the latest information on how staying active improves not only your mental health but your quality of life.

How Does Exercise Improve Your Mental Health?

Woman walking on incline treadmill at the gym.

Exercising releases your feel-good, mood-boosting hormones, otherwise known as endorphins. Recent studies show that endorphins serve as natural pain relievers and help create an overall feeling of well-being.

Specifically, Cox shared that working out activates two parts of the brain: the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. Triggered by exercise, together these parts of your anatomy are responsible for influencing your emotions, mood, motivation, and memory formation. Creating a positive movement experience by working out over time, and flooding your brain with endorphins as a result, helps your brain form new neurons. As this happens, your brain is able to create new memories in association with moving your body, thus improving your overall mental health. 

From a cognitive standpoint, Cox shared that exercise serves as a mental distraction from stressful parts of life, and helps build routine and structure in the day.

Additionally, working out in a group setting can create positive movement memories by merging endorphins formed by social interactions, with “self-efficacy” or a “belief in yourself” mindset.

How Does Exercise Benefit Those With Depression and Anxiety?

A woman rolls a yoga mat

Exercise is often referred to as an antidepressant due to how it impacts the brain. Naturally, it helps combat varying levels of anxiety and depression. The flood of endorphins it sends to the brain not only serves to elevate your mood but increases your energy levels and lowers your blood pressure.

In addition to anxiety and depression, Cox recommended exercising to help someone experiencing significant irritability and anger.

“Both anxiety and anger are strong emotions that activate a stress response in the brain. When this is activated, adrenaline is released creating a sympathetic nervous system response. For example, your blood pumps faster, your breathing becomes more shallow, and your body feels tense, etc.”  said Cox.

Cox specified that people can respond to stress in different ways, such as pacing or fidgeting when feeling anxious or wanting to punch something when anger arises. In other words, we physically take on the “stress response” that is activated in our brains.

Cox went on to emphasize that funneling the physical symptoms that can result from feelings of anxiety, depression, and irritation into a workout can become productive and feel helpful and “cathartic.”

Working out on a schedule or a routine can also become a go-to coping mechanism in response to feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or angry.

What Types of Exercise Most Benefit Mental Health?

A woman uses a pilates magic circle to exercise.

While research indicates aerobic exercise as the best form of boosting your mood, Cox said she encourages her clients to lean towards activities that they already enjoy, whether that be going for a hike, playing golf, or doing Pilates. If you struggle with motivation and energy from the start, she recommended yoga or light stretches. Research indicates that yoga specifically has been accepted as helpful for those struggling with trauma.

“As a client is working on his or her goal, I also encourage the client to remember something is always better than nothing when trying to establish a new habit,” said Cox. “If the goal is a workout for 20 minutes but you only have energy for 5 minutes…that’s ok! Go ahead and do what you can! They can always exceed whatever goal they set but the purpose of making the goal attainable is to increase motivation rather than reinforce a hopeless feeling.”

Exercising is a proven way to improve your mental health, overall clarity, and quality of life. Incorporating a regular movement routine doesn’t have to step far outside of your comfort zone to be effective.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s always best to seek professional help through your healthcare provider or you can reach out to hotlines like the Lifeline 988 hotline which you can reach by calling 988, or you can text for assistance via the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Jenn Vigh Jenn Vigh
Jenn is a pilates and yoga instructor, an aerialist, and a travel blogger with 5 years of experience in nonprofit communications, and over 10 years of experience writing, teaching, training, performing and collaborating with creatives across the globe. For the last 6 years, her American home-base has been Austin, TX, where she’s worked with the aerial dance company, Blue Lapis Light, and enjoyed the sunshine with her world-traveling yorkipoo, Sheila. Read Full Bio »
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