Exercise and Mental Health

Woman lifting weights in gym. Image: Pexels - Anastasia Shuraeva

Today I get to talk about a topic near and dear to my heart: Exercise.

My first memories of “exercise” are of doing step class in my basement to a Gin Miller VHS. (Wow, am I ever dating myself here!) Diet culture set in for me by the age of 15 and the purpose of exercise at that point was purely for weight loss.

Viewing exercise this way — as a way to control my body — dominated my own reasons for exercising throughout the next 20 or more years. It wasn’t until my late 30’s did I shift my perspective of exercise and movement from that of control to that of a mental wellness practice.

I feel that a lot more people these days are recognizing just how important exercise is to their mental health, and many, like me, are using it as a safe, accessible, and immediate mental boost. They understand just how beneficial it is for improving mood, enhancing memory, helping to reduce anxiety and depression, boosting self-esteem, and enhancing cognitive function.

It’s great that the overall conversation has shifted from body to one’s entire self. It opens the door for conversations ABOUT how exercise positively affects more than just our bodies. Let’s dig a little deeper into the benefits…

Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at the Center for Neural Science at New York University talks a lot about the benefits of exercise on brain neuroplasticity, and how exercise can be used to improve learning, memory, and higher cognitive abilities in humans.

I like how she describes what movement does for our brains. “Every single time you move your body, you are giving your brain what I like to call a wonderful bubble bath of neurochemicals. Dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline, endorphins, which are key to the ‘mood-boosting’ effects of exercise.” But those, she points out, are just the short-term effects. The long-term effects of this “bubble bath” extend much further to growth factors for your brain.” (She has a great TED Talk that’s available here if you’re interested in exploring this deeper.)

Men riding bike together

Improving Mood

Anyone who has ever maintained a solid exercise habit understands the immediate and noticeable benefits of its ability to improve our mood. As Dr. Suzuki noted, engaging in physical activity stimulates the production of endorphins, often referred to as the body’s natural mood elevators. This mood boost is commonly known as the “runners high” but of course doesn’t just apply to running.

Research consistently demonstrates that individuals who engage in regular physical activity experience a more positive mood compared to their sedentary counterparts. Even a 10-minute walk can result in immediate mood improvement, making it an accessible and effective strategy for managing daily stressors and promoting mental well-being. If that’s not a good reason to lace up your shoes, I don’t know what is!

Reducing Anxiety and Depression

At the height of COVID, I wrote an article for ATE about the importance of exercise. I noted just how challenged I felt when gyms and studios were closed down because I personally am a group fitness junkie. I already fully understood just how beneficial movement was to my well-being (both mentally and physically) and the one place that I felt my best and my least anxious was a place I could no longer go to. I had to pivot and I did. But a lot of people really did struggle during this time for the same reason.

Anxiety and depression climbed during this time, and those who stayed engaged in physical movement benefited. Exercise has regularly been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression by positively altering the brain’s chemistry. It helps the brain cope with stress by promoting the growth of new neurons and reducing inflammation, both of which contribute to improved mental health.

While exercise can be helpful in these areas, it also is worth repeating that exercise is not necessarily meant to be a stand-alone treatment for anxiety and depression, and those who need mediation as well can benefit from the treatment of both.

Boosting Self-Esteem/Self-Image

I feel that there is nothing better for my self-esteem than pushing myself at the gym. I always feel amazing after a great workout. Knowing that I am doing great things FOR my body (rather than coming from the attitude of punishing my body and wanting to change it) also leads to a great feeling of increased self-esteem and accomplishment. It’s a positive feedback loop that reinforces the habits and the feelings that come from it.

Boxing gym

The physical changes that accompany regular exercise, such as improved fitness levels and body composition, can also contribute to an enhanced self-image. The sense of control and mastery gained through consistent exercise empowers individuals to tackle life’s challenges with increased confidence, breaking down the barriers that often accompany mental health struggles.

Furthermore, the social aspect of many exercise activities, such as team sports or group fitness classes, offers opportunities for social interaction and support, further bolstering self-esteem. Feeling connected to a community that shares similar goals and experiences fosters a sense of belonging which is also crucial for mental well-being.

Enhancing Cognitive Function

Beyond its impact on mood and emotional well-being, exercise has been shown to have profound effects on cognitive function: improvements in memory, attention, and overall cognitive performance. The brain, like any other organ, benefits from the increased blood flow and oxygenation that accompanies exercise.

Aerobic exercise, in particular, has been associated with the growth of the hippocampus, a brain region crucial for memory and learning. Additionally, exercise promotes the release of neurotrophic factors, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supports the growth and maintenance of neurons.

Studies indicate that physically active individuals exhibit better cognitive performance and a reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline. Whether it’s a brisk walk, a dance class, or a challenging workout routine, engaging in regular exercise not only benefits the body but also supports cognitive health, emphasizing the holistic nature of the mind-body connection. I don’t know about you, but knowing I can do something positive to improve or at least maintain my cognitive function as I age is really important to me!

Breaking the Stigma

While I think that as a society, we have made some great strides to reduce the stigma of mental health, we still have a long way to go. Covid opened the doors wider for this conversation and because we are still experiencing ripple effects from it, it’s important to keep the conversation going. Society’s misconceptions and stereotypes often contribute to individuals feeling hesitant or ashamed to seek help or openly discuss their mental health struggles. Breaking down this stigma requires a collective effort to promote awareness, understanding, and the acknowledgment that mental health is an integral aspect of overall well-being.

An empty gym with cardio and weight machines

Education plays a crucial role in dispelling myths and fostering a more compassionate understanding of mental health. Highlighting the scientifically proven benefits of exercise in managing mental health challenges can contribute to a shift in societal attitudes. Encouraging open conversations about mental health, emphasizing that seeking help is a sign of strength, and promoting a culture of support are essential steps in breaking down the barriers that surround mental health issues.

It’s important that we, as regular exercisers remember that beginning one’s fitness journey can be intimidating. (Even as someone who is pretty fit, I still get intimidated by the weight section in my own gym.) We have a welcoming role to play to embrace others who are at the beginning of their journey even if it means packed January classes with people who are trying to make exercise the focus of their New Year resolutions.

As we continue to navigate the complexities of modern life, it is crucial to recognize the interconnectedness of physical and mental health. By embracing the positive effects of exercise on mental well-being and actively challenging the stigma surrounding mental health, individuals can empower themselves to lead fulfilling and balanced lives. Incorporating regular exercise into one’s routine is not only an investment in physical health but also a powerful step towards breaking down the barriers that too often isolate individuals facing mental health challenges.

If you are incorporating a new exercise routine in your New Year, just remember to start small, start with what you most enjoy, don’t get discouraged, and don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. Including exercise in your life is one of the best things you can do for yourself physically AND mentally! Get out there!

You do not have to “do healthy” on your own. In fact, research tells us that you are much more likely to succeed if you have accountability layered in.

Let’s face it — healthy eating and healthy lifestyles can be boring and require a lot of patience. Having the support of an accountability coach and a community of like-minded individuals on your team can make all the difference. Share paths with a practicing holistic nutritionist, receive one-on-one coaching regarding your meals, and be connected on the app with my other clients and Ambassadors. You will have fun, stay motivated, and feel inspired!

Find out more by visiting my website www.stacyyates.com

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