Exercise and Mental Health

Updated: May 22

Why your brain loves movement and how you can love it too

"If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health." Hippocrates

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Study after study has shown that exercise is not only crucial for physical health, but for mental health as well. Depression is on the rise. Not just in the U.S. but globally. According to the WHO, depression affects more than 264 million people worldwide. This blog post will shed some light on the following questions:

  • What happens to our brains when we exercise?

  • How can exercise help in times of increased uncertainty?

  • And, most importantly, how can you motivate yourself to exercise while being affected by the COVID-19 lockdown?

The mind-body connection

Australian research published in Translational Psychology found that a sedentary lifestyle can significantly increase your risks of anxiety and depression, while, on the other hand, exercise is a well-researched is a mood booster. In particular, engaging in regular physical activity has shown to have a positive effect on our mental health.

One reason for this positive mind-body-connection is that exercise releases calming or mood-enhancing neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, or endorphins.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter than increases our feelings of well-being and happiness. Apart from that, it improves our sleep cycle and helps us to relax. Regular cardiovascular activity is an effective way to increase your serotonin levels.

Dopamine improves memory, mood, motivation, and attention. It is released when eating delicious food, having sex, or when exercising. Competitive workouts seem to be especially beneficial to raise your dopamine levels.

Endorphins are not only improving our moods, but they also help the nervous system to cope with stress and pain. A recent study from Finland shows that HIIT workouts can be especially helpful in releasing endorphins.

Why is exercise especially important when we're facing a pandemic?

The COVID-19 crisis presents a challenging situation for our mental health. An uncertain future, social distancing, and limited access to the things we love present tough challenges for most of us.

While exercise can't provide you with job security or face-to-face human contact, it can help our mental well-being in a variety of ways:

  • Sticking to an exercise routine can help us to structure our day and give us the feeling of control when everything else seems to be beyond our control.

  • Exercise can be social even in times of social distancing: many fitness programs and apps allow users to connect and interact virtually.

  • Accomplishing a challenging workout can help us to regain confidence, that may have been reduced due to the limitations that we're currently facing.

How can you motivate yourself to stay active?

It can be challenging to push yourself to workout when you're already feeling lowdown. And, not being able to workout with friends as you may have before the pandemic can exacerbate those feelings and make it even more challenging to be motivated.

The more inactive you'll get, the harder it becomes to get off the couch. Don’t stress! Here're are some excellent ways to prevent those feelings and to keep your body and mind happy!

#1 Establish a routine that eventually becomes a habit

Habits are activities that we mostly do without consciously thinking about them. The word Habit stems from the Latin word habitare, which means live, inhabit, or dwell. According to the American Journal of Psychology, it is a “more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition and mental experience.” So, once exercise becomes a habit, your workout sessions become second nature.

However, forming a habit does not happen overnight. According to a UCL study, it can take anywhere from 18–254 days. However, you can speed up this process by performing your exercise program every day - ideally, at the same time.

#2 Lower your expectations

High expectations can be an obstacle in starting to workout altogether. It's so much easier to find excuses to postpone a 1-hour exercise session than a quick 15-minute routine.

Setting realistic and manageable goals is key to create small wins, which will then boost your confidence and make you hungry for more.

A smart way of progressing your exercise program is to increase the length of your training sessions by 5 to 10% per week. This will help your body and mind to adjust to your new routine.

#3 Track your progress

Various studies have shown that tracking your progress can improve exercise results and program adherence. Recording your results can directly impact your brain chemistry: any positive reinforcement will release dopamine and increase your confidence to master other challenges that lie ahead of you.

Sharing your results with others can further motivate you to stay "on track."

A word of warning: exercise is not meant to replace professional therapy. Rather, it should be used to supplement it. Please consult with a healthcare professional before starting a (new) exercise program if you're suffering from any chronic disease or are taking medications.

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