Let’s face it. When we’re battling depression or anxiety, the last thing we feel like doing is getting up and exercising.
But…sometimes the hardest thing to do is the right thing to do.
In my own life, I have witnessed the dramatic benefits of physical activity for mental health improvement. Aside from my intimate relationship with the Lord, exercise has been the biggest catalyst for change.
Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function…exercise has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental health. It is simply one of the best treatments we have for most psychiatric problems.John Ratey
Why is this topic so important to me?
If you are here reading this because you suffer from depression, anxiety, or another mental health concern, know that you are not alone. I, too, am familiar with the battle.
An introverted/introspective nature, coupled with trauma early in my life nurtured a feeling of being unsafe, unwanted, and unseen. Those feelings turned into deep depression and crippling anxiety, even as a child.
I remember going to a pediatrician in the 6th grade for pills that would stop my stomach from spasming. I was such an anxious wreck that the pain in my belly would prevent me from being able to function or eat.
The fight against depression and anxiety only increased in my adulthood years after suffering abusive relationships, abandonment, and life-threatening illness.
So my friend, I don’t speak about the benefits of physical activity for mental health as someone who has never experienced it. I live this truth, every day.
Admittedly, I’m not always motivated to get that workout in, but once I do, my stress levels plummet, my anxieties don’t feel so overwhelming, and depression lessens its grip on my ability to think clearly.
I am not suggesting that exercise will magically make all of your troubles disappear. It won’t.
What physical activity can do is take your mind off of those negative thoughts and help you focus on something that will benefit you instead.
6 Benefits of Physical Activity for Mental Health
This is not a complete list of all the benefits of physical activity for mental health by any means. These are, however, great examples of how healthy movement can change your life.
Powerful release of feelin’ good endorphins: When you challenge yourself physically, your body releases a natural pain and stress buster called endorphins. But that’s not all. Endorphins are also your body’s natural anti-depressant. Yep, you guessed it! That’s why you feel so much better after a good sweat session.
Mood regulating benefits: Endorphins aren’t the only ‘happy juice’ released when you exercise, though. You’ll also benefit from higher levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. The combination of these brain chemicals give you that boosted mood, improved sleep, and overall better health!
Reduced anxiety: When we feel anxious, our hearts race, our breathing changes, and our bodies react with the flight-or-fight response. Since exercise gives you a similar feeling, it trains your body to react to anxiety with a healthier perspective.
Increased self esteem: The neurotransmitters mentioned above are partly to credit for this. However, I believe it is also because we feel a sense of accomplishment. Making a goal and sticking with it is a powerful mood booster and motivator. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy feeling stronger, healthier, and comfortable in their skin?
Increased energy: This has been a big one for me! Low energy impacts our mental health in a major way. When we feel chronically fatigued, our motivation decreases along with our mood and ability to focus. Even though it’s hard to get started – the surge of productive energy you will feel after exercise gives you the confidence needed to tackle anything that comes your way that day.
Improved circulation in the brain: Higher intensity exercise gets your blood pumping and your oxygen free flowing. This increased energy to your brain helps it perform better, decreasing depressive symptoms. Over time, your brain chemistry will even improve, helping your body balance those feel good chemicals long-term.
What are the best types of physical activity for mental health?
This is such a great question! I know everyone you ask will likely have a different opinion.
To me, the best kind of exercise is the kind you enjoy and will stick with.
The best kind of exercise is the kind you actually enjoy doing! Getting fit should be fun! It’s not supposed to be a punishment. #exercise #mentalhealth #health #healthylivingTweet
Physical activity, in my humble opinion, should never be about punishing yourself to be a certain size or shape. That takes the joy right out of discovering what your body is capable of accomplishing.
That’s why I encourage you to find the type of physical activity that feels good to your body and your heart. There is something out there for everyone!
Related Reading: 5 Fun Fitness Challenge Ideas for Beginners
Here are just a few ideas for physical activities that may improve your mental health too.
Dance your heart out
There are many benefits of dance supported by research. Dance improves your heart health, overall muscle strength, balance and coordination, and reduces depression. These benefits have been seen across a variety of ages and demographics.Mind Wise Innovations
Didn’t I mention that getting fit should be fun? Misty of Body Groove agrees. Her philosophy is that the “no pain, no gain” concept is a lie.
She will teach you that there’s no getting it wrong if you’re having fun and moving your body. You’ll find a mix of slower stretches, challenging (but fun) HIIT workouts, plus you’ll be dancing and grooving the whole time!
Best of all, no equipment is required. Take a look at these tutorials on YouTube for more information.
Dancing doesn’t have to be formal or perfect. It can be as simple as moving your body to the beat of your favorite song!
Just have fun!
Yoga or Pilates
If there is one exercise that many rely on to boost mental health, it is yoga. The act of focusing on your breathing and being in the moment is one of the best ways to bring your mind back to focus and leave your troubles behind.
If you have never tried yoga before, now is the time to grab your yoga mats and get your downward-facing dog on. There are hundreds of free yoga workouts available on YouTube so you don’t even need to leave your home to learn the basics.
If yoga isn’t compatible with your faith, Pilates may be a better fit. These Pilates exercises for beginners on YouTube can get you started right away.
Pilates focuses a lot on a strong core, which can help chronic back pain sufferers and those looking to improve their overall strength and tone.
Running or Brisk Walking
You may have heard of the “runner’s high.” I guess that’s why running has been considered one of the best types of physical activity for mental health.
Running isn’t for everyone, though.
If your joints and knees just don’t want to jog or run, that’s okay. Go for a brisk walk instead, preferably in nature if you can.
Start at short distances if you need to. There’s nothing wrong with that. Remember, it’s not about punishing yourself or your body! You’ll feel happier when exercise is more about feeling good than looking good.
Weightlifting and Resistance Training
There’s a misconception out there that lifting weights is all about bulking up. The truth is, weightlifting has mental health benefits far beyond what most people recognize.
Resistance training is in fact an incredible physical activity for mental health, and has even shown promise in helping with the symptoms of PTSD.
“Strength training has also been seen to stimulate dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, three hormones that tend to be low in people suffering from depression,” says BarBend.
If you like high intensity exercise and enjoy resistance training, you might also enjoy CrossFit.
Boxing or Kickboxing
If you want a real workout that leaves you feeling accomplished, less stressed, and fierce afterwards, try boxing or kickboxing.
This physical activity is effective for improving mental health because it really gets those endorphins flowing.
Because this exercise can be pretty intense, beginners should have a coach to guide them or simply start off slower and easier to avoid injury.
To see how challenging this can be, try doing air punches (shadow boxing) for at least one minute in all directions. Not only is this great cardio, but it’ll strengthen and tone your arms in no time at all!
Try this 9 minute punching cardio workout to challenge yourself even more.
If you are blessed to have access to a pool or a body of water you can swim in, this is a great physical activity for mental health.
U.S. Master’s Swimming says, “…swimming seems especially adept at influencing mood by increasing the number of certain neurotransmitters in your brain, namely serotonin, noradrenalin, and dopamine. These “feel-good” brain chemicals are boosted by vigorous physical activity and also increase steroid reserves, which allows you to become more resilient to stress.”
Next time you’re feeling stressed out and worn down, maybe a swim is just what the doctor ordered?
Taking care of ALL of you
I began Wholeness Haven because, as a Christian, I believe we are a spirit, we have a soul (mind, will, emotions), and we live in a body.
If any of these aspects of ourselves are unhealthy/unhealed, the rest of our being will suffer too.
Physical activity is undeniably critical to our well-being, but don’t forget to pamper yourself with some self-care too.
Do other activities that boost your mental health like spending time in the presence of the Lord, relaxing in the bath, watch a funny movie you haven’t seen before, or talk with a close friend.
Whatever you decide to do, recognize that you are worth taking care of.
Staying consistent is the key. That’s hard to do when we’re full of self doubt, feel guilty for taking care of ourselves, or struggle with unworthiness.
What do you say we take the time out and do whatever we need to do to be made whole in our minds, bodies, and spirit? You’re worth it!
Thank you for reading! Now I’d like to hear from you in the comments below.
- What is your biggest challenge mentally, physically, and spiritually?
- Are any of these workouts your favorite?
I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts, as always. Please share with your friends on social media if you think they’d find this helpful!
You’re reading, “Physical Activity for Mental Health: 6 Exercises That Release Endorphins and Improve Moods,” by Holly, originally posted on Wholeness Haven. If you’ve enjoyed this post, be sure to follow Holly on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram!
Love and Blessings,
Mayo Clinic: Depression and Anxiety: Exercise Eases Symptoms
American Psychological Association: The Exercise Effect
National Institute of Health: Exercise for Mental Health