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How Exercise Affects Your Mental Health

Lifestyle & Opinion

By Krista Tagaras

Everyone knows that regular exercise is good for the body, but exercise is also one of the most effective ways to improve your mental health. Regular exercise can have a positive impact on depression, anxiety, ADHD, and more. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts overall mood.

Research indicates that modest amounts of exercise can make a difference. No matter your age or fitness level, you can learn to use exercise as a powerful tool to feel better. Individuals who regularly engage in aerobic exercise experience lower levels of depression, anxiety, insomnia, psychosocial stress, and fatigue, as well as higher levels of self-esteem and improved sleep quality compared to their less aerobically active peers, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Lott, p.1)

People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it gives them an enormous sense of well-being. They feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. Being active, in a way that works for you, can positively impact the way you view life. “Movement is a medicine for creating change in a person’s physical, emotional, and mental states” as said by Carol Welch, a certified Neuromuscular Therapist.

Emotions are a huge part of our lives, and they deeply affect our actions, even though we may not always be aware of it. We can control our emotions, or our emotions can control us. Luckily, physical exercise has been proven to help strengthen and better our emotional regulation skills. “Emotional regulation” is a term generally used to describe a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience. Emotional regulation skills are skills that need to be learned. Emotional regulation skills develop over the course of infancy and childhood and continue to mature during adolescence. These skills are critical to mental health, academic achievement, and good social relationships. In addition, aerobic exercises have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. These improvements in mood are said to be caused by exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain and by an influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and, thus, on the physiologic reactivity to stress. (Sharma)

By learning and sticking to new routines and not giving up, you start to develop habits. A habit is built with three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. No matter what the situation is, you have trained your brain to take a cue and expect a reward. When this happens repeatedly, they become habits. Once you understand that this is how a habit is formed, you can start identifying new habits that you’d like to establish in place of your old ones. Setting and achieving fitness goals helps you set and achieve goals in every other aspect of your life. If you set your mind to something and work hard toward its accomplishment, the outcome will be positive. By changing habits, you need to make the proper mental adjustment for that situation. Your mind is a powerful tool that can shape your life to be exactly what you want. By exercising and eating high nutritional value foods on a consistent basis, you are creating healthy habits that better your body from the inside out.

“If you believe you can change – if you make it a habit – the change becomes real.  This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you chose them to be.  Once that choice occurs – and becomes automatic – it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing…that bears us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.” (Duhigg)

You are not your past, or past decisions. You have the power to develop and create habits that better yourself physically, mentally and emotionally.

As many people have experienced, if your mind is feeling cluttered or you’re having a mid-afternoon slump, a nice walk or a quick workout can give you a renewed sense of clarity and focus. This is certainly true for students, too. Exercise has been shown to help people become better students by learning skills to manage and succeed in work. Exercise encourages the brain to work at optimum capacity by causing nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections, and protecting them from damage. Going to the gym is so much more than just going to the gym. Students who are motivated by fitness and wellness tend to have better time management skills, and research shows that being fit is good for the mind. It all ties together. The gym is a place where students learn to use physical activity to cope with the stress of life and school. Being fit is also about getting the appropriate amount of sleep, and that is key to doing well in school, as well. Exercising on a routine basis is just one of the many ways that can help young people develop healthy habits for life. The benefits to academic performance and attention are also convincing: Not only do students with higher levels of fitness have a more developed brain structure and perform better on cognitive tests, embedding exercise – even short spells of moderate activity – into classroom time improves focus, retention and test scores. (Anderrsen) Fitness isn’t just something you do in order to look great. Fitness becomes part of your lifestyle: it becomes habitual for you to workout every week and to challenge your body. If we develop good habits, success becomes natural.

By focusing on your health and prioritizing your nutrition, you are taking care of yourself first. If you are physically, mentally and spiritually stable, you can give more to those you love. The people closest to you rely on your love, energy, and compassion. Former First Lady Michelle Obama was known for putting health and wellness first. She was a huge advocate for taking time for you. She mentioned that sometimes we get so caught up in what we’re doing for our life, such as errands or work, that we don’t have a lot of time to take care of ourselves. Michelle Obama once said, “We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own to-do list.” The word “selfish” has been abused and misused since its origin. For some reason, we’ve attached a negative connotation to this word, but the truth is, until you’ve helped yourself, you’re not helping anyone else. Fitness is a very broad industry that allows so much room for personal growth. While you may be strong in some areas, you might need more practice and focus on others. This keeps you humble and allows you to set goals for yourself to grow and improve both mentally and physically. We should always celebrate and focus on our investments in ourselves, our wellbeing and our existence in this world. Investing in your own growth and self-development isn’t selfish it’s self-care. Mental health is just as prevalent as physical health. Your mind needs just as much upkeep as your body does to be healthy. Fitness isn’t about being better than anyone else; it’s about being better than you were yesterday. You need to ignore what everyone else is doing and achieving. Your life is about breaking your own limits and outgrowing yourself to live your best life. You are not in competition with anyone else. Strive to outdo your past, not other people. Creating a balanced lifestyle that meets your body and minds needs’ will help you become the best version of yourself.

Proper exercise can make you happier and healthier overall. Exercise is a “keystone” habit according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. This means that daily exercise can pave the way not only for happiness, but also growth in all other areas of your life. There are physical reasons why working out may help make you happier, such as feel-good brain chemicals; raising your body temperature, which releases a feel good affect; and reducing immune system chemicals. Dopamine, a chemical that plays a role in happiness, is a neurotransmitter in the brain that’s necessary for feelings of pleasure and happiness. The best way to increase your brain’s dopamine production is by physical exercise!  Exercise also builds your confidence, distracts you from worries and helps you interact with others! It’s easy to see exercise as a chore. Consider this instead: Exercise is a blessing. Wake up everyday knowing you have the knowledge and the means to exercise and that you’re lucky enough to have a body that is strong and physically able to exercise. A healthy body is truly a work of art.

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Anderrsen, Erin. How Physical Exercise Helps to get Students Intellectually Fit. (2014, August 29). Retrieved October 21, 2017.

Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit. (2012). New York, NY: Random House.

Lott, Mark A. Aerobic Fitness, Executive Control, and Emotion Regulation in Preadolescent Children. (2015, June 1). Retrieved October 22, 2017.

Sharma, Ashish. Exercise for Mental Health. (2006, January 15). Retrieved October 21, 2017.


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