Given the uncertainty of the past two years, it’s quite likely that most people’s mental health has been affected more than it normally would be. Aside from the pandemic, there are other stressors such as work, relationships, home life, school and many others that can distract you from your daily life.
Exercise has always been an outlet for me and it’s one of the best ways you can use to relieve daily stress. The best part about using exercise as an outlet is that it doesn’t even have to be a fully structured strength training session. It can be something as simple as a 15 minute walk or a relaxing yoga routine. Whatever makes YOU feel better is going to work best. I personally will go for a run if I have a lot on my mind but some days I’ll throw my headphones in and just move some heavy weights.
But why does this work?
When you exercise, you release hormones called endorphins. These are the body’s natural pain killers and give you that happy and ‘feel good’ sensation. This is why you typically feel upbeat and positive after a good workout. Doing something such as exercising at least 3 times a week will help get your body into a regular routine also causing the release of endorphins to be more regular. This can be beneficial for more long term mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.
Regular exercise can also improve overall self-esteem and self-confidence. Not only will you feel the effect of endorphins being released, but after consistent exercise you will feel a sense of accomplishment, productivity and overall well-being. Knowing that you are putting in the work and getting a sweat in for the day is such a rewarding feeling and helps you view your body in a more positive way.
Another benefit exercise can have on your mental health is that it improves overall cognition and memory over time. Physical activity releases a protein called the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This produces new brain cells, especially in the hippocampus (a region of the brain important for memory and learning). Sedentary behaviour can cause the hippocampus to deteriorate faster which is typically common in elderly people, which in time, can lead to conditions such as dementia. Continuous exercise can lead to growth of the hippocampus and therefore delaying and in some cases regenerating cognitive deterioration.
So, this is why exercise can benefit your mental health. But I know you’re probably thinking that knowing this doesn’t always help on the days you’re unmotivated. I think we can all agree that motivation is not something we have every day. The pandemic was one of the most difficult times for the majority of individuals and their mental health. For me personally, the gyms being closed definitely took a toll on my mental health. With that being said, there was not much else I could do apart from force myself to do some sort of movement. It was tough to get going but it would feel 10x better than a 6 hour Netflix binge. Even if you’re not motivated (and you definitely won’t always be), just tell yourself why you need to do it. Make it part of your daily routine like brushing your teeth or getting dressed instead of something you have to be “in the mood for”. That’s what gets me through when I’m not motivated. Making it a routine makes it easier to push through because then it’s not about motivation, it’s about consistency and knowing that you will feel better afterwards. So, even just taking a simple walk in the fresh air to allow your body to get the movement it needs can also allow your brain the distraction and de-stressing it may need.