As a therapist who works with clients who struggle with grief, depression and anxiety, movement is medicine.
It’s probably no surprise to hear that exercise is great for your mental health, just as it is for your physical health. After all, exercise has long been touted for its numerous physical health benefits, from improving cardiovascular health to reducing the risk of chronic diseases.
When I begin working with clients struggling with grief, anxiety and depression, I often encourage setting up a routine for exercise and movement. While the benefits of exercise aren’t immediate, commitment to a regular exercise routine can be a powerful medicine and a wise teacher.
I started my health and fitness journey with a personal trainer shortly after experiencing a loss in my family. New York City was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city was locked down, businesses were closed, and the streets echoed a deafening silence. I couldn’t do the things that I typically did to process my grief. To make matters worse, my health started to decline after a few months of being sedentary.
In this blog post, we’ll cover the transformative ways exercise strengthens mental health by helping to improve your mood and reduce stress.
4 Transformative Ways Exercise Strengthens Mental Health
1. Reduces Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental health disorders, affecting millions of people worldwide. While therapy and medication are often recommended for treating these conditions, exercise can also be a powerful medicine in reducing symptoms.
Why is this exactly? Research has shown that exercise has a powerful effect on the brain. It can increase the production of endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that act as natural mood lifters. To echo the words of an iconic philosopher, Elle Woods from Legally Blonde, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” Regular exercise has also beenlinked to an increase in the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that promotes the growth and survival of brain cells and can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Just when you think you can’t do another rep, your body tells you otherwise. Exercise reveals to us that what we are is more than our thoughts.
Progressing in your fitness goals teaches us that progress is not linear. Having one bad work out or skipping a run doesn’t put you back at square one. In fact, it’s important to take breaks so our bodies can rest.
I initially started my fitness journey with the intent to improve my health, increase my weight and appetite, and improve my mobility. I met my fitness goals within the first year of weightlifting and I was the healthiest I had ever been. I was surprised to discover that my first year of exercise gave me more than I initially asked for. I saw a boost in my mood, my memory, my focus and attention, self-esteem, confidence and my ability to cope with stress. Even my posture improved.
2. Increases Self-Esteem
Another way that exercise can positively impact mental health is by increasing self-esteem. When we exercise, our bodies release chemicals called endocannabinoids, which can improve mood and reduce feelings of anxiety and stress. Additionally, regular exercise can help you feel more in control of your body and life, leading to a greater sense of self-confidence and self-worth. In order to increase your self-esteem it’s necessary to engage in esteemable acts, and there’s no better action than keeping a promise to take care of yourself.
3. Shifts your focus from perfection to progress
If you engage in all-or-nothing (often called black or white thinking), regular exercise can also improve how you live life in the gray area. Commitment to exercise teaches us that, with all things in life, progress and growth is more important than perfection. You soon realize that some physical activity is better than none – to focus on your lifting form over your ego, or gradually ramping up your mileage before attempting a marathon distance. Focusing on the journey and not only the destination encourages a balanced lifestyle. As a result, living in this nuanced area can help you achieve balance in other areas of your life that may be off kilter.
4. Improved Coping and Stress Management
Finally, exercise can help us cope with stress more effectively. When we’re stressed, our bodies produce cortisol, a hormone that can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. However, regular exercise can reduce cortisol levels and help us manage stress more effectively. Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist focusing on exercise and its effects on the brain, says that “a single workout can increase neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline that are released in the brain to boost your mood. A single workout can improve your ability to shift your focus and attention.”
In one client I worked with, faced a surprising turn of events with an unexpected health crisis that left him feeling like his body was working against him. Typically an energetic person, my client felt emotionally isolated, lethargic, and noticed significant loss in his strength, especially when he had to climb stairs or carry groceries. He worked with his medical team and received treatment to address the issue, but he couldn’t shake the feeling of his body working against him. High energy group fitness and dance classes, and consistent strength training in the gym, helped cultivate my client’s mind-body connection, revitalize his energy, regain the strength he lost, and reclaim control of his body. Exercise and movement was a soothing balm for the stress he experienced while he navigated his health crisis. Two years later, upon reflecting on his fitness progress, my client is in the best shape of his life. With the added bonus of looking and feeling good in his body, movement and exercise also greatly improved his self-esteem.
Enhance Your Wellbeing: Promote Self–Esteem and Self–Confidence through Movement
I notice the greatest change in my mood on leg days that engage my hips. I remember having a cathartic release of pent up emotions. Across many disciplines, from yoga to neuroscience, it is commonly believed that stress, trauma, and emotions are stored in the hips. Without knowing it, exercising regularly helped me move through my grief, especially on leg days.
Exercise is not just good for your physical health – it’s also incredibly beneficial for your mental health. Exercise and movement strengthened my mind – if I’m strong enough to move the weight in front of me, then I’m strong enough to move through my grief and take on anything that life throws at me. Whether you’re dealing with depression, anxiety, or just want to improve your overall well-being, incorporating regular physical activity into your routine can help you feel better both mentally and physically. I’ve experienced the benefits in myself and witnessed the transformation in my clients.
So why not lace up your sneakers and head out for a walk or try a new fitness class today? Your mind and body will thank you.