Exercise Improves Your Mental Health!

Can Keeping Physically Active Really Change How Your Brain Works?

If you’ve ever been unhappy with your weight or the shape of your body, you’ve no doubt tried exercise. Whether it’s hitting the treadmill three times a week, doing yoga, or simply walking around the neighborhood in the evenings, exercise has amazing benefits we can all enjoy. You also know that maintaining an exercise routine can be a herculean task. Repeating the same exercises over and over can feel boring. Your enthusiasm wanes. Before you know it, you’re more excited about getting home and putting your feet up than you are about strapping on your walking shoes.

What if you knew it was exercise that had you humming that tune this morning, that put a smile on your face, that pep in your step, the “good” in your good mood? Would that make you a little more excited about hitting the gym?

It’s true, new research is confirming what healthy lifestyle experts have been saying for decades—exercise can boost your happiness and improve your mental health (but only if you stick with it).

The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

The brain is a chemical machine. Its moods are determined by the chemicals floating around in your bloodstream. Physical activity creates several types of naturally occurring chemicals that have a massive impact on your mood and overall mental health.

Chemicals like:

  • Endocannabinoids
  • Endorphins
  • Testosterone
  • Human Growth Hormone
  • Serotonin
  • Dopamine

These are all created or released during exercise and can alter everything from how your brain perceives the world, to how sharp you are, to how you emotionally respond to different stimuli.

“Nothing lifts me out of a bad mood better than a hard work out on my treadmill. It never fails. Exercise is nothing short of a miracle.” –Cher

As Dr. Kelly McGonigal suggests in her new book The Joy of Movement, certain types of exercises may be better at helping you improve your mood and your mental health by tapping into sheer, unadulterated joy!

How to Choose the Correct Exercises for You

Dr. McGonigal is a renowned psychologist and lecturer at Stanford College. She has been studying the human brain and its moods for decades. Her research suggests that certain types of physical movements can trigger a sort of inherent recollection of the joys of childhood and automatically boost our moods. Wide, sweeping, expansive motions like stretching your arms to the sky, swaying to a beat, or spinning wildly with your arms outstretched have been shown to trigger measurable happiness within people from a variety of cultures around the world. These motions—what McGonigal calls “happy” movements—add an emotional component to physical activity that can work to make exercise routines more approachable, more engaging, more rewarding, and ultimately longer lived.

Think about the types of physical activities that incorporate these jubilant motions.

  • Dance
  • Yoga
  • Zumba
  • Swimming
  • Running
  • Tennis

Is it any wonder that these are the types of exercises that have some of the most dedicated followers?

“Physical fitness takes commitment to exercise just as it requires good nutrition. But it doesn’t have to be painful. Just the opposite: vigorous exercise actually is stimulating. It boosts your energy levels, invigorates your mind, and just feels good afterward. The hardest part, of course, is getting started.” –Jack Lalanne

How You Can Tap into Happiness to Improve Your Exercise Program

Look to the Past

Is there an activity that you enjoyed in your younger years? Kayaking or canoeing? Swimming? Maybe a certain sport like basketball? These favorite activities are a wonderful way to get engaged and stay engaged with your new exercise routine because they already possess that strong emotional connection your brain craves. All you have to do is find a way to rekindle that passion.

Maybe your able to jump right back in where you left off. That’s great! Maybe the years have progressed, and your fitness has faltered. In that case, look for a way to incorporate those same or similar activities within your current physical limitations. For example, instead of diving back into the pool and starting with 50 laps, join a low-impact Aqua Zumba class. It likely is the feel of the water that unconsciously connects you with those joyous memories of youth.

Embrace Your Effort

Recognize your accomplishments no matter how small they may seem. Nobody runs marathons on day one. There is always a learning curve when it comes to understanding what your body can and cannot do. Don’t let your perceived shortcomings discourage you.

Dr. McGonigal says that any movement at all—even just swaying to music—should be viewed as a “great gift” that can bring powerful joy into your life.

“We do not stop exercising because we grow old–we grow old because we stop exercising.” –Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper

Add Elements of Joy to Your Exercise

Take your activities outside to make Mother Nature your new workout partner. Invest in some quality headphones and add music to your routine. Mix up your activities—swimming one day, hiking the next! Bring friends along to share the experience. Document your change on whatever social media you use. All these components can make what could have been just another day at the gym engaging, rewarding, and joyful.

Be Mindful of Your Progress

Tracking your progress can be an important part of maintaining your motivation. As great as fitness devices and apps are, sometimes they can suck the joy out of exercise. Instead, Dr. McGonigal says more mindful ways of recording your progress double-down on the emotional connection of how exercise makes you feel. Something like taking a selfie at the end of a workout or journalling about how your experience made you feel will help you remember the moment when all tracking apps let you hold onto are numbers.

Exercise and Mental Health

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