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While pulling yourself off of the couch after binge watching Netflix for hours is easier said than done, physical activity can have a positive impact on your emotional and mental wellbeing. And the good news is that you don’t need to run a marathon or attend a horribly difficult spin class to reap the benefits. 

Research suggests that people who exercise on a regular basis have better emotional and mental health, as well as lower rates of mental illness. However, regular exercise isn’t the answer for all cases of depression or anxiety. But for more moderate cases of the two, exercising can be just as effective as therapy or prescription antidepressants so it is definitely worth the try. Going for a long walk in the forest or for a swim at the nearby pool can also supplement your existing treatment plan. 

How does exercise improve your emotional and mental health?

Many people choose to exercise several times a week for the physical impacts, like brain health, managing weight, and reducing their risk of certain conditions. It’s common for people to get hooked as they notice that their mood improves when they are active. Plus, it also increases concentration and alertness, two things that are hard to come by these days when you’ve got a busy schedule. 

Inactivity or failure to exercise on a regular basis can be considered a cause and consequence of mental illness or emotional strife. Even adding small amounts of physical activity into your routine can change the chemical composition in your brain. Serotonin is released and stress hormones are emitted during exercise, which will help regulate your mood, especially if it’s been blue lately. 

Along with an improved mood, regular physical activity can actually promote more restful sleep at night. Those who struggle with depression and anxiety understand just how important a good night’s sleep is. 

In addition, exercise can improve your coping ability, self-confidence, self-esteem, and sense of control while pushing you to achieve your goals. People with anxiety or anger-related issues can also use exercise as a form of tension release therapy, taking out their frustrations on a punching bag or treadmill. And speaking of tensions, many people also find that exercise reduces skeletal muscle tension, which helps them feel much more relaxed. 

The physical benefits of regular activity are also crucial for people diagnosed with mental illness. Exercising can improve your cardiovascular health and overall wellbeing. This is incredibly important because folks with mental health issues are technically at a higher risk of suffering from chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease. 

How much exercise is needed?

If you already are an avid exerciser, you might be wondering just how much you need to tweak your physical activity schedule in order to get a mood boost. Studies have shown that super strenuous activity isn’t always needed, which means you don’t need to workout until you feel like throwing up. 

Instead, try being active most days, even if it’s just a 30- or 45-minute walk. But if you think you can handle a little more than that, 3- to 5-hours of exercise per week is the sweet spot. Breaking that time down even further: aim for 2 hours of intense physical activity and then the rest can be moderate or easy. Stretching and practicing yoga can also have huge payoffs, releasing harmful tension from your shoulders, neck, back, and of course, brain. 

Tips on sticking to exercise for mental and emotional wellness

When life gets hectic, it’s hard to stay on top of a fitness regimen. The best way to keep yourself accountable is by partnering with a friend who is also looking to improve their mental and emotional health. 

If you’re not a fan of the gym or indoor fitness classes, get outside and take advantage of the cool air and nature’s soundtrack. Exercising outside has even more benefits. People have reported an increased level of enthusiasm and self-esteem, and a lower level of tiredness, depression, or fatigue, after spending time outdoors. It’s especially nice to get outside and move if you work at a desk, in an office, all day. 

For those who need a little extra motivation, try creating a personal challenge that ends in an exciting reward. Try tracking your exercise for one month and if you end up engaging in physical activity four times per week, treat yourself to that new sweatshirt you’ve been eyeing. Even better, reward yourself with a set of dumbbells or a new yoga mat as those can be used for future exercise sessions. 

It can certainly be said that exercising for mental and emotional health is not a myth at all—just see for yourself! If you don’t notice any changes in your mental health after implementing physical activity, it’s a smart idea to speak with your doctor about other options.