How Important is Exercise to Your Mental Health?

Carencia Care Team

July 20, 2022

Everyone knows that exercise is good for your body. Physical activity can improve your mood, concentration, and alertness. But did you know that it also has positive effects on anxiety, depression, and other disorders? At Carencia, we understand the importance of physical activity and the role that it can play in your mental health treatment.

Exercise and Mental Health

Exercise isn’t just about improving your physique or physical health, trimming your waistline, or even adding years to your life. None of those things are even the number one motivator for physical activity.

People who exercise on a regular basis tend to do so because it just makes them feel better, both physically and mentally. It’s a great way to help with many common mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression.  Regular exercise can have a profound effect on symptoms by helping to relieve stress, improving memory, increasing energy and stamina, and assisting in better sleep. These health benefits also lend to overall improved mood and mental outlook.  Research shows that even smaller amounts of physical activity – a 10-15 minute walk, for example – still makes a difference. No matter the age or fitness level, exercise is a powerful tool to deal with mental health problems and just generally get more out of life.

Exercise and Depression

Studies have shown that in mild to moderate forms of depression, exercise can be just as effective as medication, but without any side effects. A recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduced the risk of major depression by 26%.

Exercise is a powerful tool against depression, and other mental health issues like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), for several reasons. Most importantly, it promotes changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of relaxation. Exercise releases endorphins, which are chemicals in your brain that make you feel good. Finally, it can serve as a distraction, to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression.

Exercise and Anxiety

Exercise is also a very effective treatment for anxiety. The accompanying release of endorphins relieves tension and stress, boosts physical and mental energy, and enhances overall feelings of well-being. Any physical activity provides benefits, but you can get even more out of it if you are mindful while you exercise, instead of just zoning out.

Noticing the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, the rhythm of your breathing, the feeling of the breeze on your skin as you walk or run, will not only help improve your physical condition faster, but will interrupt the flow of constant worries and help improve your mind.

Exercise and Stress

Your muscles are tense, especially in your face, neck, and shoulders, causing pain or headaches. You may feel tightness in your chest, a racing pulse, or muscle cramps. These are examples of what your body goes through when it’s subjected to stress. The worry and discomfort from symptoms can, in turn, lead to more stress and cause a vicious cycle.

Exercise is a great way to break this cycle. As well as releasing endorphins, physical activity helps relax the muscles and relieve bodily tension. Because the body and mind are so closely linked, when your body feels better, so does your mind.

Getting Started When You Struggle With Mental Health Issues

It’s hard enough to find the motivation to exercise at the best of times in our lives. But when you suffer from depression, anxiety, or stress, it can seem impossible. You know that exercise will make you feel better, but depression has stolen your motivation and energy. Or, perhaps, your social anxiety means you can’t handle the thought of being around people in an exercise class or running at the park. If so, there are a few ways to handle this and get started, even as you struggle.

Start Small. When you are in the grips of anxiety or depression and haven’t made time to exercise in a while, setting grandiose goals like completing a marathon or working out for multiple hours a day only serve to leave you more discouraged when you inevitably fall short. Better to set small, achievable goals and build from there.

Schedule your workout time when your energy is highest. Are you a morning person and your energy is highest before the sun comes up? Or maybe your energy tops out right after lunch, before the mid-afternoon lull? Or maybe you do better with exercising longer on weekends? If your depression or anxiety has you feeling rundown or unmotivated all day, try a quick walk after dinner or even dancing to some music. A short 15-minute evening walk could be just the thing to clear your mind, boost your energy, and improve your mood. As you move and start to feel more comfortable, you’ll often boost your energy enough to begin exercising more vigorously.

Focus on activities you enjoy. Any positive activity that induces movement can provide mental health benefits. This could include going for a walk with the dog or a friend, cycling to and from work, or even doing a little window shopping at your local Target. If you’ve never really exercised before, you might surprise yourself with the physical activities that you enjoy. Even activities like home improvement tasks or working in the yard can be great ways to start moving more when you have a mood disorder. In addition to helping you learn to become more active, they can give you a sense of accomplishment and purpose, and often provide a little vitamin D through sunshine too!

Be comfortable. Wear clothing that is comfortable and choose a place that you find relaxing or calming. This could be a quiet room in your house, your backyard, a park near your house, or a local hiking path. Whatever is most comfortable for you is the best way to begin developing an exercise habit.

Reward yourself. Feeling better about yourself after completing any activity is only part of the reward. Occasionally, it helps to promise yourself a little extra treat for exercising. Reward yourself with a smoothie that you love, a relaxing bubble bath, or a movie you have been wanting to see.

Make exercise social. Exercising with friends and neighbors, or even your kids, can often make physical activity more exciting than exercising alone. It will also help motivate you to stick to your workout routine. In fact, if you’re suffering from depression, companionship and leaning into your support network is almost as important as the exercise itself.

Easy Ways to Make Exercise a Part of Your Everyday Life

You don’t always have to have an hour a day blocked for yoga or that bike ride. Sometimes you just don’t have the time. It may take shifting your thinking to see physical activity as a lifestyle and not just another task to be checked off the to-do list every day. Look at your daily routine and find ways to sneak in activities here and there.

Move around the house.  Something as simple as cleaning the house, washing the car, mowing the lawn, or sweeping the sidewalk could be a few ways to get physical activity into your routine.

Activity at work or on the go. Park at the back of the parking lot, walk or take your bike to work and back, use the stairs instead of the elevator, or take a quick walk on your coffee break.

Get active with your family. Walk around the baseball field at your son’s practice, take the kids on a neighborhood bike ride every weekend, take the dog to a new dog park, or go swimming at a local pool.

Get creative. Take a hike at a local state park, take a martial arts class, stretch while watching tv at night, or try to organize an office softball team.

Carencia Cares

Carencia knows you don’t have to spend hours at the gym or force yourself to endure long, mind-numbing workouts to get the mental health benefits of exercise. We believe in helping you utilize some of the tips and tricks in this article to get up and move in order to start to feeling better, looking better, and getting more out of your life.