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Keep Calm and Move On – The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Written by O'Connor Professional Group
Published on October 29, 2021

We’ve all heard how beneficial exercise is for the body—from weight control to keeping our muscles, bones, and hearts strong to added longevity, to list a few. Exercise can have positive and lasting benefits on mental health as well: lifting our moods, making us calmer, fighting everyday stress to provide relief from anxiety, improving our self-esteem, increasing energy levels, and enhancing our cognitive abilities.

“Just get out there and move” is the message. Sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, for many of us, the opposite holds true, and establishing a regular exercise routine becomes an unappealing and often avoided task. Visions of running relentlessly on a treadmill for hours on end, enduring step after pounding step, breath after gasping breath, fill our heads. The good news is we need not be fitness fanatics to reap the many benefits of exercise! Getting started, and sticking with a routine, can be easy and enjoyable, but we often embark on an unnecessarily difficult and unrealistic plan. Read on to learn more about how exercise benefits mental healthas well as physical health, and find some simple suggestions for getting started with (and sticking to!) a routine.

The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise – How it Works

When we engage in physical activity, research has shown that our brains undergo change in complex ways. One such change involves the release of neurotransmitters. Simplistically put, cells called neurons make up our brains, and chemicals called neurotransmitters transmit signals between neurons, allowing us to feel and experience our internal and external worlds. Because exercise has been linked to the release of feel-good neurotransmitters and raising levels of endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine, we can experience a calmer, more pleasant, better mood overall by engaging in physical activity. The mental health benefits of exercise have been found to last beyond the sweat-inducing session and into our daily lives.

How Exercise Improves Mental Health and Promotes Better Health Overall

Additionally, regular exercise has been shown to confer other long-term mental health advantages. For example, exercising can provide relief from stress by causing the body to release chemicals that balance elevated levels of stress-related hormones, like cortisol and epinephrine. Vigorous activity can also increase blood flow to the brain, thereby exposing it to more nutrients and oxygen, and it can induce the release of beneficial protein, which keeps neurons healthy and promotes the growth of new ones. Further, being active can help us sleep at night and give us more energy during the day. The overall effect is to improve concentration, sharpen mental abilities, improve long- and short-term memory, and help prevent age-related decline.

How to Start Exercising for Mental Health

So, how do we incorporate a realistic and sustainable exercise plan into our often-hectic lives? The answer requires letting go of preconceptions and looking inward; the key lies in finding what works for you, not your neighbors or friends, with a dose of curiosity and fun mixed in.

To establish a rewarding, sustainable exercise routine for mental health, consider:  

  • Choosing physical activities that you enjoy and find comfort in, especially to start. For example, walking is a fan favorite. As time goes by, think about being curious and trying new activities. Maybe experiment with biking, boxing, or a barre class. Ultimately, think about adding a balance of aerobic, resistance, and flexibility activities to your routine.
  • Matching exercise intensity to your current fitness level.For example, you may want to start with brisk walking, and as your stamina improves over time, think about challenging yourself with periods of jogging or running, but keep it fun. Use caution and remember that overexertion and fatigue can lead to injury.
  • Beginning with a few short sessions per week.As your fitness level and endurance improve over time, think about slowly lengthening the duration and/or frequency of your sessions, but only as your body and schedule allow. Remember even moderate activity for 30 minutes, three times per week, can confer health benefits, and breaking the 30-minute session into briefer periods of exertion, i.e., 2 x 15 minutes or 3 x 10 minutes, throughout the day can provide the same benefits. Again, use caution, and remember that overexertion and fatigue can lead to injury.
  • Taking social preferences into consideration.Ask yourself whether you are energized by other people or whether you prefer your own company. Do you gain more satisfaction from taking a class in a crowded room or walking with a friend? Do you like being inside or outside in the open air? Do you prefer a power walk on the treadmill or hiking through the woods?
  • Adopting the mantra “progress not perfection”.Celebrating small gains and the commitment to a healthier you can lead to improved self-esteem and provide the motivation to keep going. Remember to be gentle with yourself if you miss a session or had a subpar workout; nobody’s perfect.

Exercising regularly is a great tool in your mental health toolbox to promote mental wellbeing, but for those living with certain mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, exercise may not be enough. If you or a loved one is dealing with a mental health disorder and in need of support, contact us todayto schedule a consultation to learn more about our private mental health services.

Disclaimer: OPG strongly recommends that you consult with your physician for medical clearance before beginning any exercise program. OPG is not a licensed medical care provider and represents that it has no expertise in diagnosing, examining, or treating medical conditions of any kind, or in determining the effect of any specific exercise on a medical condition. You should also understand that when participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in an exercise program, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself, and agree to release and discharge OPG from any and all claims or causes of action, known or unknown, arising out of your actions.

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