You may be wondering about the benefits of exercise on mental health, or maybe it’s been suggested that you start your journey to loving yourself by treating your body well. Well, it’s true: the ways you can move your body are nearly as boundless as the ailments it’s said to treat. However, when you hear from every direction that this one thing- to move your body- is the answer to something so personal (your mental health, among many other things), it can feel defeating. Particularly if athleticism doesn’t come naturally to you, you may be inclined to dismiss it without really considering it. That’s fair. We get it. Exercise isn’t a cure-all for mental health or anything else. It will not help you if you aren’t also helping yourself, but it can be a supportive measure you can take so that your healing feels more accessible and you feel stronger in advocating for your mental health.
There is no one solution to rule them all, but exercise isn’t a single solution. It’s many solutions all tucked up under a single name and, yes, it’s honestly really great to support your mental health.
Let’s talk about some of the benefits of exercise on mental health that help the mind-body connection flourish, and the creative ways you can indulge in them even if you’re not particularly sporty.
1. Exercise Alters Your Chemistry
Sounds science-y, but when it comes to the way your body moves and thinks, your chemistry is an organic process. Stress, like that created by mental health struggles, can change the way your body makes and uses the things that help you to feel your feelings. Neurotransmitters like endorphins and dopamine are produced by physical activity but inhibited by the presence of stress. When you move your body, you make more of those feel good chemicals. When you are stressed, your body has a harder time accessing and absorbing those things to actually use them, and your body produces cortisol (the stress chemical) instead.
Does that mean you need to move more when you’re stressed out?
Yes, it does. Your body can get a little boost of encouragement, like taking a sip of water during a marathon, when you literally move through your stress. It doesn’t mean you need more intense activity to benefit though. Simple things like a brief yoga flow, going for a walk outside or even light housework can be enough to increase your feel-good internal science experiment so your body can work more effectively at offsetting the impacts of stress.
2. Exercise Balances Your Bodies
That’s not a typo- we do mean bodies. You have several of them but two are key for the balance of exercise and mental health. Your emotional body helps you regulate the things you feel and the way you feel them. Alternatively, you also have a physical body. Your physical body is exactly that- the length of your legs, the curve of your nose- it’s the skin you’re in as you move through this world. Otherwise known as the mind-body connection, the relationship between what you think and feel and how you care for your physical presence in this world is a dance of definitive togetherness.
In addition to those neurotransmitters that influence body and mind, exercise improves the circulation of blood and oxygen to the brain. This increasingly responsive brainpower allows you more access to some of the regions of your mind. The hippocampus in particular benefits from moving your body. Acting as the control center for memory and emotional regulation, a healthy hippocampus means more brain power to work through those things. More intensive forms of exercise have the most powerful impact here. You can activate your emotional body more deeply by moving your physical body through things like surfing, beach walks, dance or hiking.
3. Exercise Helps You Breathe deeper
When you move, you breathe. Exercising to increase the benefit of every breath doesn’t have to be trying or difficult. We touched on it briefly above, but moving your body increases the oxygenation of your brain, as well as your body parts. Breathing deeply, and intentionally, can help restore cell health as well as regulate body rhythms like your heart rate and immune response.
Much like every form of exercise, breath-focused movement can be accomplished in a myriad of ways. Meditative movement like yoga, labyrinth walking or tai chi all center your breathing in the engagement of your body and mind.
There is a single purpose in moving your body for your mental health: to feel better. That doesn’t mean forcing yourself to move or engage with your body in ways that you resent. Exercise does not have to be punishment, and punishing yourself into wellness will never work. Does that mean you have to love it? Absolutely not. Self care doesn’t always look or feel like calm indulgence.
It does, however, look like making choices that empower you and benefit your wellbeing- body, mind and soul. In exercise, how you treat and fuel your body, and in your relationship with substances, we hope you always make the choices that will move you toward your light. We believe in you.