The Power of Movement: Using Exercise to Improve Your Mental Health

By Lauren Presutti

Maintaining positive mental health requires adopting different coping strategies, discovering the ones that work well for you and throwing out the ones that don’t. We all have unique lifestyles, preferences, and characteristics – everyone’s mental health journey will be different – but nonetheless, we all have basic needs of diet, exercise, and sleep. In my therapy work with clients, starting with an assessment of these basic needs is often helpful because these lay the foundation we need as a prerequisite for wellness. In my previous blog, I discussed healthy eating habits to improve mental health. Today, I will focus on exercise, and my next blog will address sleep.

Have you ever felt a natural high after an amazing workout? You may have heard before that these positive feelings are thanks to endorphins, neurochemicals released by your body during and after exercise. But regular releases of endorphins can also lead to lower levels of depression and anxiety, help improve self-esteem, and boost your confidence in all areas of your life. Physical movement also helps you release the buildup of internal chaos and stress that you feel inside your mind and body. Particularly for individuals who experience anxiety or panic attacks, staying active can help manage racing thoughts and worries. Because individuals with anxiety might be prone to a higher heart rate, jittery feelings, and hyperactivity, exercise can be especially beneficial because working out helps to lower your resting heart rate and can reduce those jittery or hyperactive feelings.

Exercise can also help distract you from negative thoughts and feelings, which is beneficial for all mental illnesses. If we are constantly ruminating over our negative emotions, bound up in our bedroom or crashing on the couch only to obsess more and more over our feelings of sadness, overwhelm, insecurity, shame, or frustration, we are more likely to feed into those negative emotions and experience greater despair. Coping with negative emotions includes challenging our unhealthy or irrational thoughts, replacing our internal narrative with healthier affirmations, and distracting ourselves with positive activities that keep us focused on an upward wellness trajectory. Exercise can be the perfect way to do this. When we are exercising, we focus on the workout, we may be counting our repetitions, pushing ourselves to our physical limits, or focusing on our techniques. Staying present in the moment through exercise usually means there is less mental space for anxiety or depression.

Physical activity can also add routine and structure to our lives, which is known to improve our mental health. When we stick to a routine, we don’t experience the added stress of deciding how to spend our free time. Usually when people have too much extra free time on their plates, it becomes difficult to use that time productively and we sometimes feel more internal chaos without structure in place. It’s important to consider how much exercise feels right to you. You may want to incorporate 30 minutes of exercise into every day of your week, or you may want to commit to an hour-long workout only a few days a week. Others will want to work out more or less, and that’s okay. It can also be helpful to add variety into your exercise routine, as this can keep your workouts feeling stimulating and can guard against boredom. Whether you enjoy bike riding, running, long walks, weightlifting, playing sports, dance, swimming, or jumping rope – discover what you like best.

Do you like to exercise individually or with others? Exercising should be a fun, safe experience, so if you are an introvert who feels rejuvenated with alone time, you may want to stick to individual workouts. On the other hand, if you benefit immensely from social support, joining an exercise class either face-to-face or virtually can help foster your sense of community and maintain motivation to keep coming back. If joining an exercise program, be sure to find one that is affordable and convenient for you. Breaking the bank just to join an expensive health club membership will only add financial stress to your life.

Sometimes it’s helpful to incorporate your favorite music to boost your energy and mood while working out. Creating a fun playlist that energizes you is a great strategy. It’s also important to be comfortable in your workout clothing – don’t pressure yourself to wear what everybody else is wearing at the gym. Find what works the best for you. And if you need a little more inspiration to get started, invest in a new water bottle, watch YouTube videos about exercise, upgrade your tennis shoes, or flip through a health magazine. Sometimes it’s the little things that we need to push ourselves forward.

Most importantly, let go of perfectionism and don’t compare yourself to others. In the exercise world, we often make comparisons that end up becoming toxic and counterproductive. If we are constantly comparing ourselves to other people, we are diminishing ourselves and invalidating our own growth and progress. Everyone has different body types, health conditions, exercise training history, fitness knowledge, time allowances, and other variances – it’s almost impossible to make a fair comparison given all factors involved. Most of the time, our comparisons are not justified because we don’t account for these differences. A much healthier approach is to avoid comparisons altogether – focus on your own journey and be proud of yourself no matter what you are able to do. Even 10 minutes of exercise is better than nothing. Your body and mind will thank you for it.

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We’re here for YOU. Please don’t hesitate to call or text us at (248) 717-1232 or email lauren@riveroakspsychology.com to schedule an online counseling appointment. Your mental health matters.