From veteran gym-goers to newbies who have never before lifted a dumbbell, everybody is broadly aware of the positive impact that exercise has on our bodies. Far less is known about the benefits of exercise on mental health, however—and for some reason, it’s rarely talked about with the same enthusiasm.
The mental benefits of exercise are far-reaching and potent. Did you know, for example, that working out regularly not only improves the quality of your sleep each evening, but it can also boost your mood, increase your sex drive, and ease depression and anxiety? And that’s only the beginning!
What are some of the mental health benefits of exercise?
Regular exercisers have deeper, healthier sleep, as well as boosted energy levels and a clearer mind, in addition to looking physically healthy and feeling happier in their own bodies.
Exercise can also help with common mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and ADHD—and it doesn’t have to be a lot! And small levels of exercise on a daily basis can have a positive impact.
Here’s more detail on the effects of exercise on the brain, and how exercise can help different problems you may encounter with your mental health…
Exercising to reduce anxiety
Research has shown exercising can help our bodies cope with anxiety by reducing discomfort and stress, naturally raising daily energy, and instigating the release of endorphins, which are chemicals responsible for making us feel good.
Mindfulness while exercising maximises these effects. By focussing on our body and the feelings we experience when going through each exercise in turn, we can stop our minds from feeling tangled up.
Banishing depression with exercise
Exercise has been proven to help ease the burden of mild to moderate depression. The bonus, of course, is that exercise has no side-effects, unlike some forms of medication used to treat depression. The only ‘side-effect’ of exercise is the possibility of developing abs and a good butt.
Depression can be lifted by exercising only a small amount. You don’t need to exhaust yourself on the treadmill daily!
A recent study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that even jogging for just fifteen minutes (or walking for one hour) reduced the symptoms of depression found in participants by up to 26%. Not bad for a treatment that’s totally free and available to everybody.
Exercise works to alleviate depression for several reasons. Firstly, it enables increased neural growth in the brain, while simultaneously establishing new activity patterns that increase our sense of calm and happiness.
At the same time, it releases endorphins, while also reducing any inflammation that may be causing us discomfort or stress. Speaking of which…
Exercise for stress
The benefits of working out also apply to stress. When we live in a chronic state of stress, our bodies pay a heavy toll: we feel tense, we experience headaches, our hearts race, we can’t sleep, and that’s only the generalised symptoms—everybody experiences stress a little differently, and any number of symptoms can be a sign.
Stress is a particularly unpleasant beast in that it can snowball in impact: we feel stressed, we show symptoms, we get stressed at the presence of our symptoms, and our symptoms increase.
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It’s a bleak spiral, but exercise can stop it in its tracks. With a high from the endorphins and a good stretch of our muscles, working out repairs some of the damage done by stress, while also making further stress less likely. Perfect!
Exercise to aid ADHD
Exercise releases a ton of happy chemicals in your brain. Serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine are all generated by a good workout, and as well as making us feel great, these chemicals actually enable us to focus better.
Like many medicines produced to help alleviate ADHD, such as Ritalin and Adderall, regular exercise helps to keep our attention fixed on one thing at a time.
Exercise to reduce symptoms of PTSD
When we experience post-traumatic stress disorder, our bodies typically become immobilized by our response to stress; our nervous system seizes up, and we become ‘stuck’.
We can fend off these unpleasant experiences with regular exercise, which aside from generating mood-uplifting chemicals, creates physical sensations within our bodies that we can focus on to ground ourselves.
If you’re planning a workout regime to ease your PTSD, focus on exercises which use your legs and your arms, such as dancing, swimming and jogging.
How to exercise when your mental health is low
Sometimes, motivation for exercise is far-off. When your mental health feels poor, here are some ways to get yourself out there…
– Overcoming exhaustion
When you’re down, exercise is often the last thing on our minds. Counter-intuitively, however, exercise has actually been proven to reduce fatigue.
It only takes a couple of minutes of exercise for fatigue to slip away, as blood begins to pump around the body and our lungs take in more oxygen, waking us up and helping us to feel more alert.
While we’re feeling low, it’s all too easy to tell ourselves there’s no use in exercising—that we’re better off staying in bed. One of the key benefits of exercise on mental health is its ability to turn this around.
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To overcome negative thoughts, make your exercise goals small to begin with. Start so small you can’t possibly skip them. Even one minute of exercise is better than nothing! Start small, then build up.
– Chronic stress
If your life involves a lot of stress, a new workout routine can at first make things seem even more hectic. However, working out will de-stress you in the long term, making everything else in your life feel more manageable.
Plan exercise into your daily routine, and prioritise it. You’ll feel the results in no time.
Ready to exercise?
Regular exercise is brilliant for your mental health. Everything is improved by it, from your confidence and ambition to your self-image and your libido.
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