It’s no secret that staying active benefits your long-term physical health, but many probably don’t think about the mental health benefits of moving your body. Talking about exercising can elicit a number of responses (groans or cheers, mostly) but in terms of mental health and wellbeing, exercise can be a fantastic tool to help you alleviate feelings of anxiety, depression, stress, and more. According to the MHFA curriculum, physical self-care, or the healthy living habits one develops and practices, is an important aspect of managing the symptoms of mental health challenges. Eating habits, exercise patterns, sleep, recreational activities, and more can have a significant impact on how a person feels and functions. Also, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), regular physical activity can help keep your mind sharp as you age and can even reduce your risk of depression and anxiety. It increases serotonin levels, leading to improved mood and energy. It can also boost your mood and help you sleep better – two major factors for determining your mental wellbeing.
If you’re someone who cringes at the thought of exercising every day, don’t worry! You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete or marathon runner to reap the benefits. Getting moving for just a few minutes a day has its advantages. For example, one 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 reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. Don’t have the time to spare every day of week? No worries – another study done in England found that people who only exercise on the weekends still get the physical and mental benefits, even in a shorter timeframe. Exercising releases feel good hormones called endorphins, which improve your mood and can also help you de-stress. Be sure to consult your primary medical provider before you get started, just to be safe. Once you’ve got the green light, you can begin to think about what type of movement will work best for you. Even a little movement is better than nothing, and you don’t have to take up running or join a gym. Playing outside with your kids, taking your dog for a run, or even walking around your neighborhood are great options – anything that gets your heart rate more elevated than sitting on your couch. What’s most important is that you exercise as appropriate for your own health and choose a form of exercise that you like.
Additionally, if you start exercising regularly it will become a part of your routine. You won’t dread lacing up your sneakers or fret over choosing a workout. It helps to have a plan – make it a part of your schedule or block time off on your calendar.
Having an exercise partner also helps! Telling a friend or family member that you are planning on going for a walk or getting outside will help hold you accountable. Just be sure you are exercising for your benefit, and not because you feel obligated to. Start small, do activities you enjoy and don’t sweat it if you miss a day or a week.
Staying active is important for your physical health, but the mental benefits that come with exercising make it an excellent coping mechanism if you’re feeling “off” or anxious. Stepping away from whatever is causing you stress is also a great way to give your brain a break and gain some new perspective when you come back to it. It’s important to remember that your mental health is just as important as your physical health, and by staying active you can #BeTheDifference for both your body and your mind.
For more tips on staying active during COVID-19, the CDC has an excellent resource guide, How to be Physically Active While Social Distancing.
Centers for Disease Control. (2021, January 22). Benefits of physical activity. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm
Choi. K. W., Chen, C., & Stein, M. B., et al. (2019) Assessment of bidirectional relationships between physical activity and depression among adults: A 2-Sample Mendelian randomization study. JAMA Psychiatry. 76(4), 399–408. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2720689?resultClick=1
Help Guide. (2020, October). The mental health benefits of exercise. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-health-benefits-of-exercise.htm.
MHFA. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA for Adults Assisting Adults. Washington, DC: National Council for Behavioral Health.
O’Donovan, G., Lee, I., Hamer, M., & Stamatakis, E. (2017). Association of “weekend warrior” and other leisure time physical activity patterns with risks for all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer mortality. JAMA Internal Medicine, 177(3), 335–342. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2596007?resultClick=1