Exercising is known for it’s physical health properties. Rarely do fitness instructors ever mention the benefit of exercises on mental health. Studies routinely show that exercise reduces cortisol, boosts energy, improves focus and precision, and generally leaves us feeling better about ourselves. This roll on effect makes exercise one of the most powerful tools you can use to improve your overall mental health. Some studies even suggest that exercise can be as effective as medication for people experiencing anxiety.
Because of it’s importance, I have put together a list of 6 Exercises for Mental Health:
6 Exercises for Mental Health
Find Ways to MOVE More
Especially now in isolation, we are more sedentary then ever. Sitting at our computers for hours and hours on end then lounging on the couch until bed. Yeah, I’m talking about you! This behaviour is very harmful to not only our physical health, but our mental health too. Our brains associate places with behaviours or routines automatically. When you associate your home as a place of stagnation, your brain is demotivated to do anything outside of it’s normal routine. You need to break this! Check out our article on Routines and Habits: What You Need to Know, for more information on how to implement small changes and rewards to break some of these habits.
Some ideas for naturally adding a bit more movement into your life:
- Park further away from store entrances and make a lap around the store when you enter before you look for any shopping.
- Walk to your local store or restaurant.
- Do a few squats before you sit down and again when you get up. Get those muscles working!
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Leave the space in the elevator for those who need it.
- Get into a stretching routine before bed. Not only does it add more healthy movements into your routine, but studies have shown that stretching before bedtime can help promote a better sleep.
Walking is by far the easiest exercise you can do. We all do it every day in some way or another. Do more of it. I mean it! Walking has been shown in research studies not only to help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, but it can also prevent these feelings in the first place.
Heesch, Burton, and Brown (2010) from the University of Queensland studied older women both diagnosed with depression or anxiety and those who were not. In both groups, the researchers asked the women who use walking as their primary means of exercise to rate their moods over time. Even women who did just small amounts of exercise (less than 75 minutes a week) saw improved mood.
Their findings just support many previous other findings that there is a positive relationship between walking and well-being:
- Cassidy K, Kotynia-English R, Acres J, et al. Association between lifestyle factors and mental health measures among community-dwelling older women. Aust N Z J Psychiatry 2004; 38: 940-7.
- Kritz-Silverstein D, Barrett-Connor E, Corbeau C. Cross-sectional and prospective study of exercise and depressed mood in the elderly: the Rancho Bernadro study. Am J Epidemiol 2001; 153: 596-603.
- Ransford HE, Palisi BJ. Aerobic exercise, subjective health and psychological well-being within age and gender subgroups. Soc Sci Med 1996; 42: 1555-9.
- Warner DR. Walking to Better Health. AM J Nursing 1988; 88: 64-66.
And these are just to name a few. Start small- try 10 minutes of walking every other day. Build up to 10 minutes a day. Then 15. Make that goal of 20 minutes a day.
Weight training is a great exercise for mental health because it can be as intense as you choose. While promoting your body to build towards aerobic resistance, adding small amounts of weights into your wellness routine can have many positive effects such as building strength and reducing fat. Like with the walking, start small. Maybe you do a short all over body routine with light weights while listening to your favourite podcast every other day. That’s better than not doing anything at all. See the wins and keep consistent.
Yoga has to be one of the best exercises for mental health because it combines exercise with a well known techniques for improving mental health: mindfulness and meditation. As discussed in Loving Kindness Meditation and Mental Health, taking a moment each day to meditate or be more mindful can have lasting impacts on your mental health. Often times when we are anxious or depressed, we are stuck in our heads, rather than being in the “here and now”. Coming back to the present, while adding stretches and poses to improve your flexibility and overall physical health is one of the best ways to kick start any wellness routine. Like with weight training, you can choose the intensity of yoga you prefer. Feeling like a calmer day? Put on some relaxing music and do the easier stretching poses. Looking for a bit of a challenge? Look on YouTube and find a harder yoga workout. Do what feels best for you!
Gardening/ Yard Work
Not only is this one of those wonderful exercises for mental health, but it also comes packed in with rewards! Building your own planter boxes to grow your own vegetables and fruits is an economic way to stay healthy and eat right. Growing your own food has many health and financial benefits. You know what’s in the food you’re eating and you’re saving money at the grocery store!
Check out the garden I used to have at an old house of ours! We would spend hours weekly building and maintaining this garden. It was a source of pride and nourishment. I loved trading goodies with the neighbor next door. He had chickens and bees and would bring over honey and eggs. I would save him cabbages, potatoes, tomatoes, and lots of fresh herbs! I saved so much money with this trick!
HIIT- High Intensity Interval Training
People with anxiety often feel their sense of fight or flight activated. The sudden release of cortisol into the bloodstream causes your heart to race, your breathing to quicken, and your mind to be more scattered. Doing exercises such as HIIT can help release this cortisol in the natural way it is meant. When our bodies prepare for fight or flight mode, it is preparing us for short, sudden bursts of intense exercise. This is to help us either fight a predator or flee from it. But what happens to cortisol in our bodies when we don’t exercise? Studies show that people who experience anxiety and higher levels of cortisol have additional fat around their stomach areas. They tend to have brain fog and lack of motivation. HIIT exercises help the body to release cortisol and get the stress out of your system. Those who chose high intensity workouts found a suppressed appetite as a result. A double win!
Tips to Remember:
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a vigorous exercise session can quell anxiety symptoms for a few hours. Done consistently, over time, can significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Consider exercise your “one a day” medication for all things mental health related.
Other things to remember:
- Set small daily goals alongside bigger, weekly goals. Keep them challenging enough to motivate you but not so hard that you want to give up.
- Pick exercises you like. Don’t pick them because some blogger told you it was “cool” or the “in thing”. Do what feels natural. Do what feels best. Don’t like any of the ideas I mentioned above? Come up with your own! Exercise can be as unique as the person doing it. There is no right or wrong exercise so long as you’re moving!
- Get involved with a workout buddy or challenge group. Online there always seems to be a fitness challenge going on somewhere. Tap into that community and use them for support! You don’t need to do this alone!
- Find music or a podcast to keep you occupied while you exercise. Time flies when you’re having fun! And if you’re concentrating on what you’re listening to, you can easily find yourself listening your way through a 20 minute workout. Personally, I love using this time to catch up on audiobooks and podcasts. I find Jay Shetty, Gary Vee, and the Mindset Mentor podcasts to be some of my favourites during exercise.
If you want to change your life, you need to start somewhere. Why not with exercise? Have any additional ideas for exercise that should be included in this list? Tell me more down below!