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  • Writer's pictureLiz Beiderman

Move More, Feel Better: The Role of Exercise in Mental Health (Part 4/4 of the Mind-Body Series)

Exercise isn't always at the top of the list of things we’re motivated to do, but physical activity can actually be instrumental in giving us a mental boost when we most need it. Here we take a look at the ways in which exercise can contribute to a greater overall sense of wellbeing.

A young woman in athletic wear goes for a run in a wooded area, with a content expression on her face. The photo illustrates the benefits of exercise on mental health.

How Can Exercise Improve My Mental Health?

If you’ve ever walked out of a fitness class feeling more refreshed, clear-headed, and content than when you walked in, or enjoyed a “runner’s high” or feeling “pumped” after a workout, you may already be somewhat familiar with the positive impact that physical activity can have on our sense of wellbeing. Many of us understand that exercising is “good for you,” but don’t necessarily realize just how far-reaching some of these perks can be.

Regular exercise has actually been linked to numerous benefits to both our physical and our mental health, and there are a number of mechanisms by which it influences these areas. Here are just a few of the benefits of incorporating exercise into your daily routine.

Improved Mood

We may have noticed that we feel happier when we move more, but we don’t always consider what produces this effect or how far it can go towards actually managing mental health issues.

It's actually no coincidence that we feel better after a workout. Exercise has been shown to boost endorphins, which are the body’s “feel good” chemicals. Endorphins have been observed to increase subjective feelings of happiness and relaxation, and to decrease pain.

Exercising also increases production of serotonin and dopamine, two “feel good” neurotransmitters used by the brain. Noticing a trend here?

A runner toes their shoelaces in preparation for physical exercise, which has been shown to be beneficial in improving mental health.

The impact of exercise on mood can be pronounced enough for you to notice a mood-enhancing effect as early as five minutes after moderate exercise. If that's not enough, further research has shown that exercise can even provide relief for long term depression.

Some additional benefits of regular exercise can include improved self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment, and a healthy distraction that interrupts the stream of negative thoughts that tend to go hand-in-hand with depression. It can also lead to increased social interaction if you opt to exercise with a friend, attend fitness classes, or work out outside or at a gym.

Aerobic exercise and yoga are both popular activities for those seeking a mood boost.

Improved Attention, Memory, and Concentration

A young woman swings a kettle bell as an example of the benefit of exercise on attention and focus.

You may be familiar with expressions such as, “I’m going to take a walk to clear my head,” but many of us chalk this up to a distraction or a change of scenery without considering that the movement itself can be enough to produce this effect.

Difficulties with concentration, memory, academic performance, or work focus can all result from high levels of stress or persistent low or anxious mood, and exercise has been shown to aid in these areas.

How does physical activity accomplish this? Exercise has been observed to increase blood flow to the brain, including the memory centres, which can help us achieve a state of enhanced mental clarity and retain more information. Even better is that these benefits seem to stay with us as we age, as exercise is found to reduce cognitive decline and the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia.

A fitness regime that includes a variety of activities to target cardiovascular health (e.g. running, biking, sports), balance and flexibility (e.g. yoga, pilates, gymnastics) and mindfulness (e.g. tai chi, nature walks) is recommended to reap maximum cognitive benefits. But really, any exercise will be beneficial compared to none!

Improved Energy and Sleep

A man performed as high intensity cardiovascular workout as an example of the benefit of exercise for energy levels.

It might seem paradoxical that activities that require high energy expenditure can increase our energy as a result, but people who move more tend to have more gas in the tank than people with fairly sedentary lifestyles.

While intensity may vary, activities that elevate our heart rate are associated with improved endurance and overall cardiovascular health. They release adrenaline and endorphins and get our blood pumping, which typically results in a boost in energy and stamina. With all that extra energy burned during the day, it perhaps comes as little surprise that increased physical activity is also associated with improved sleep and reduced daytime fatigue.

Useful activities for improving sleep quality and combating insomnia include aerobic exercise, strength training such as lifting weights, and yoga.

Reduced Anxiety and Stress

A woman holds a yoga pose as an example of the benefit of exercise in reducing anxiety and stress.

In addition to boosting mood, energy, and mental clarity, exercise has been linked to lower levels of stress, and has also been suggested as a means of managing anxiety due to its observed positive impact on its symptoms.

Low-to-moderate intensity exercises such as walking or swimming, or higher intensity exercises done in moderation, seem to lower levels of cortisol, otherwise known as the “stress hormone.” Cortisol can interfere with everything from our sleep to our immune functioning if it remains chronically elevated.

By raising our heart rate and increasing circulation, exercise also simulates certain symptoms of anxiety and allows us to associate them with safety instead of with fear and danger.

Aerobic exercises such as jogging, cycling, playing sports, kickboxing, jumping rope, or dancing are all great place to start for stress relief.

With so many benefits, why do some of us find it so difficult to incorporate exercise into our lives? Let’s take a look at some of the barriers to exercising regularly and how we can overcome them.

What are some Common Barriers to Exercising?

A runner stretches in preparation to jog across a bridge.

“I don’t have the time.”

This can be a considerable challenge if you're someone who's constantly on the go and have multiple priorities to juggle. Exercising, as with any habit or hobby we adopt, isn’t something that we find the time for; rather, it’s something we make the time for. And making time for something new also takes time.

Remember that nothing in your life became a habit until you started repeating it over and over again. The activities that are now a regular part of your routine only earned that status because you deemed them a priority.

Think about how you spend the first 10 minutes of your day. What actions do you perform? In what order? Has that always been your morning routine, or is it something that evolved throughout the years? If you didn’t develop your morning routine overnight, it’s a lot to expect yourself to pick up a fitness routine and seamlessly weave it into your life from the get go.

If you decide that something is a priority, you will make the time for it, but give yourself a little room to stumble a bit at first until you find a balance that works for you and your lifestyle. You can start by finding something that’s relatively easy to fit into your current routine.

As more people return to work and businesses reopen, we may also start to see gyms reopen and fitness classes resume. Is your gym close to where you work or where you run errands? Think about scheduling your workouts around those activities. See if there are forms of exercise that you can readily slot into your free time, like taking short walks on your lunch break. The easier you make it, the more likely you are to stick with it!

“I’m not motivated enough.”

We’ve already discussed some of the numerous benefits of regular physical activity, but why do you want to start exercising more? What purpose would this serve in your life? The lack of a well-defined answer to those questions can be a large obstacle to actually implementing a fitness plan. So before deciding on a new fitness regimen, take some time to ponder why exercise is important to you.

Is the driving force behind this decision coming from a place of being unhappy with yourself, such as in the case of body image issues or feeling “lazy”? Or is it coming from the desire for self-growth and betterment, such as reclaiming your health and boosting your energy? Are your goals only short-term in duration, or do they have room to constantly evolve?

When the “why” behind a decision is something that comes from a place of self-dislike, avoidance, or feeling the need to compensate, we tend to hit a wall pretty quickly. However, when it comes from a place of self-compassion, inspiration, and the desire for a lifelong growth and development, we start to create something that we can actually sustain across a lifespan.

A young man smiles while holding a tennis racket in a photo exemplifying the benefit of performing exercise that one finds enjoyable.

Another aspect of motivation is how much pleasure you actually derive from what you’re doing. Unsurprisingly, we tend to gravitate towards activities we enjoy and avoid those we don’t, so that’s an important consideration when developing an exercise plan.

Hate the gym but love to dance? Check out some of your local dance studios instead. Not feeling the treadmill, but a big fan of walking? See if there are any hiking trails or pleasant streets to take a stroll on near you. If something feels like punishment, we’re very unlikely to stick to it, so find something that you already find rewarding.

“I don’t have the energy.”

This is one of those paradoxical challenges, since exercising itself is associated with increased overall energy. So if energy begets energy, where do we find that push to get started? Moving from a sedentary lifestyle to a more active one may seem like a daunting task at first, and it’s easy to sometimes bite off more than we can chew when we set our goals.

One key thing to remember is that there is a lot of middle ground between daily exercise and no exercise at all. Many people think that if you can’t commit 30-60 minutes to an exercise routine, there’s no need to even bother, but you may be surprised at how little it takes to actually start seeing a difference in how you feel physically and emotionally.

The World Health Organization recommends that adults aged 18 – 64 aim for 150 minutes of moderate activity throughout the week, with aerobic activity performed in bouts of at least 10 minutes. That provides many different options for how these sessions are spread throughout a week, or even over the course of the day.

You may not always have the energy for a 40-minute exercise session, but a 10-minute session of moderate activity is already enough to start reaping the mental health benefits. Find ways to work out in frequent, short bursts at first, and allow yourself time to gradually build on that. Start slow, and do what you can.

“I can’t afford a gym membership.”

Fortunately, there are many ways to exercise that are free or low-cost, and a little exploration can help you find alternatives that work for you. A gym is not necessarily the be-all and end-all for every person who wants to increase their activity levels. Free options include walking, jogging, cycling, hiking, or at-home yoga or dancing. YouTube is also a fantastic source for free at-home workouts using minimal-to-no equipment.

A young woman in a swimming cap with goggles pulled up on her forehead smiles in a recreational pool while swimming for exercise.

Community centres often have fitness and recreational programs, gyms, swimming pools, and drop-in classes at relatively low cost so that you can try different activities and see what you enjoy. Interested in weight training? There are many alternatives to big box gyms that will offer casual or flexible access, or even low-cost, no-commitment memberships. A couple of examples include ClassPass and Sweatabl.

Exercise isn’t an all-or-nothing endeavor, and there are many options out there that can get you moving without breaking the bank.

“I have physical limitations.”

Fortunately, there are many different forms of exercise that can get your heart rate elevated, and injuries and other physical limitations are not uncommon in gyms, fitness classes, sports, or other outlets. Swimming, for example, is considered an excellent low-impact exercise that can offer relief for joint pain and muscle pain while providing a full-body workout.

Walking, restorative yoga, and even weight training under the guidance of an instructor with a physical therapy background can all be good ways to incorporate increased physical activity into your life while being mindful of your physical capacity.

A Few Quick Tips to Get Started

  • Identify the current obstacles in the way of exercising and think about workarounds.

  • Think about why exercising is important to you and what you hope to gain from it.

  • Find something that’s easy to work into your existing routine.

  • Plan your day so that exercise falls around the time when you have the most energy.

  • Focus on activities that you actually enjoy.

  • Start slow and work your way up to longer and more frequent exercise sessions.

  • Concentrate on your own goals and progress instead of comparing yourself to others.

  • Do the best that you can. We’re striving for better, not perfection.

If you’re looking to implement sustainable and enjoyable lifestyle changes that support mental health, book a free consultation to see how we can work together to help you reach your goals!

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