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Exercise: The Secret Ingredient to Mental Health

Written by Thomas Lee


What comes to mind when you think of exercise? Perhaps it's running laps around the track, playing sports, or feeling sweaty and out of breath. Actually, exercise does not have to be an exhausting activity; it can be quite the opposite. When personalized and done regularly, exercise can help you feel more energetic, motivated, positive, and calm. If you are someone who has a mental illness, clinical studies have shown exercise to be an effective intervention in mental health care. Continue reading to learn more about the mental health benefits of exercise and how you can start to incorporate exercise into your lifestyle.

Exercise on Mental Illness and Stress

While therapies and medications are popular treatments for mental illnesses, regular exercise is an often overlooked intervention that can produce similar effects on the brain —best of all, it comes without a price tag! Daily physical activity can alleviate the symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, ADHD, and PTSD, according to numerous studies. Regular exercise can also reduce stress by releasing endorphins in your brain and stimulating cooperation between the systems of your body, the latter of which

protects you from the physical symptoms of stress (e.g. muscle tension, cramps, headaches, diarrhea). By reducing the negative effects of stress on the body, exercise not only makes you feel better, but it means you no longer need to feel stressed about feeling stressed! To learn more about the benefits of exercise on mental illness and stress, check out the articles linked below. Even if you don’t suffer from a mental illness, regular exercise can benefit your mental health in other ways. You may find yourself having sharper memory, improved sleep, increased energy and stamina, higher self-esteem, stronger resilience to life’s challenges, and many more.

How Do I Get Started?

After learning about all the mental health benefits of exercise, it may be tempting to break into a sweat and push yourself to the limit. However, if you aren’t exactly the athletic type, or you have health concerns, a good first step would be to consult your doctor before jumping into action. Luckily for you, hours of vigorous physical activity are not necessary to experience mental health benefits. Here are some tips to help you decide which fitness routine is right for you.

  • Start out small and push yourself little by little. If 30 minutes a day is too much for you, break it into two 15-minute chunks, or begin with 5-10 minute sessions.

  • Persistence is key. It doesn’t matter how much effort you put into one time, but rather how much effort you put over time. That is why it is so important to start small and gradually build yourself up; the more you do it, the easier it will get.

  • All you really need is moderate physical activity (i.e. any physical activity that makes you breathe heavier than normal or makes your body feel warmer). Even a brisk 15-minute walk can have profound effects on your mood and energy levels.

  • Have fun! Physical activity does not have to be a formal structured activity; it can and must be something that you enjoy. If you like staying in the comfort of your home, do a yoga video! If you like going to the gym, go to the gym! Or, if you prefer spending time in nature, take a walk around the park. Outdoor activities are excellent at recharging and refreshing your brain, so be sure to check out “The Effects of Going Outside on Mental Health” by Caroline Greaser for more information.

  • Invite your friends! It can be at the tennis courts or in your backyard, but regardless of the destination, bringing your friend serves as an additional incentive to exercise, all the while making it more fun. Joining a local sport club or team also gives you an opportunity to make new friends.

  • Create a schedule. Make exercise a priority by choosing a time slot. I like to jog in the morning or in the late afternoon to avoid the heat.

  • Set fitness goals, no matter how small they are. Exercising can be hard for many people, especially those who encounter obstacles to exercise. If you are one of those people, accomplishing small goals can help boost your confidence.

  • Talk to your doctor or mental health professional. Everyone is different, so it is important to develop a personalized fitness plan with an expert’s advice if necessary.

Ultimately, you want to meet the CDC’s guidelines of an hour or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day for teens, or 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week for adults. If this is not possible at the moment, apply the aforementioned tips and you should be on the right track to living a happier and healthier life. It may take some time, but the results will be well worth the journey.


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