Fitness: a piece of the mental health puzzle you won’t want to miss | Health & Food

Diana J. Smith

There are so many “shoulds” these days. We “should” eat less processed food. We “should” get more sleep. We “should” reduce the time we spend looking at a screen. All of those “shoulds” point to areas we think we need to improve, but we’re also experiencing internal resistance to change. But change isn’t just about doing less of what we don’t want to do – it can be just as effective to start a healthy habit. Often when we lack motivation to reduce some bad habits, we forget that creating new habits can be just as vital to our well-being.

Getting more exercise is a great example of a healthy habit that can have wide-ranging positive effects on mental health. Read on to see exactly what exercise can do for you.

The mental health benefits of exercise

  • When we exercise at low, moderate or high intensity, our brains release powerful hormones called endorphins. These endorphins create a natural feeling of mental buoyancy some equate to a “natural high.”
  • When exercise becomes a habit, our brains become more sensitive to serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate our moods.
  • Exercise has been shown to have protective factors for our brains in the aging process, essentially slowing down brain aging.
  • Regular physical activity increases self-esteem while reducing feelings of both stress and anxiety.

Finding the motivation to exercise

Exercise is a powerful tool we have in our tool belts. But how do we find motivation?  Motivation to engage in exercise routinely can be tricky. Thinking first about your “why” or your “purpose” can help. Purpose is really the “why” behind our decisions and actions.

If I lack the motivation to exercise, it can help me to reflect on my purpose. For example, “My goal is to feel different when I’m under a cloud of stress and anxiety after a particularly challenging shift at work.” Science tells us that exercise can help reduce stress and anxiety. This means that exercise can help me be compassionate and gentle with myself in a challenging moment, rather than tearing myself down further with negative coping methods.

A second strategy to try is to start small. Start with a small step, and then work your way toward the goal of consistently engaging in exercise over time. This approach gives you time to experience the benefits of exercise firsthand, making you want to continue. It also takes the pressure off, because you don’t have to complete an intensive program or cross a finish line that feels worlds away.

Third, make it fun. Tell people about your new habit, and they will help keep you accountable. Invite others to join you for a walk or encourage neighbors to stop by for an outdoor yoga class.

Soon, you’ll be reaping the mental health benefits of exercise for yourself.

Need Some Mental Health Support?

If you’ve noticed changes to your mood or are concerned about your mental health, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. If you do not have one, we invite you to make an appointment with a provider at any of our primary care locations. Your Inova primary care doctor can refer you to our integrated behavioral health services for support.

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