Protecting Your Mental Health through Exercise
"Being positively reinforced for exercising can increase our autonomy and internal locus of control."
The benefits of exercise on physical health and physical wellbeing have been well researched and widely accepted for years. However, the benefits of exercise on mental health and mental wellbeing has received less attention. A person newly diagnosed with diabetes is often given the recommendation to engage in physical activities; however, this recommendation is less prescribed in a person diagnosed with depression or anxiety. Nonetheless, physical exercise is increasingly being advocated as an important tool in the prevention and management of mental health issues, and is often used as an important adjunct to traditional treatment.
Exercise has three important effects on a person’s mental health:
1. Effects on the Brain
The most touted benefit of exercise comes from the feeling of euphoria following physical activity. Known as the “runner’s high”, physical exercise has been linked to an increase in the release of endorphins, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure, motivation, sexuality, social connection and pain relief.
2. Effects on the Body
Our experience of stress, anxiety and depression is sometimes tied to the way we interpret how our body feels. For example, if we perceive an instance of rapid heartbeat and hyperventilation, we often attribute it to our body being in a state of anxiety. This can lead us to feel anxious. Exercise improves muscle relaxation, cerebral flow and other central nervous system mechanisms that can allow us to perceive a relief of tension in the body, which in turn helps our mental well-being. While many persons associate exercising with physical and mental exhaustion, exercise is a powerful method of energizing the body and mind. Just a few minutes of exercise can help to combat feelings of physical fatigue, brain fog, and improve productivity. Finally, exercise is associated with better sleep, which is important in preserving mental health as poor sleep habits can predispose a person to mental illnesses.
3. Psychological Effects
Regular exercise can improve our perception of self-worth and self-esteem, as exercising is associated with losing fat, enhancing muscle mass and body definition. Furthermore, being positively reinforced for exercising can increase our autonomy and internal locus of control, the belief that we have control over our life and environment. Major depression and anxiety are associated with a high external locus of control, the belief that chance and fate play the most integral part in determining our life’s outcome. Finally, a noteworthy benefit of exercise is the social interaction that comes from participating in group activities. Joint group activities are an opportunity to expand your social circle and increase social support, which is associated with increased mental wellbeing.
Starting an exercise regime can be daunting for many people that have become accustomed to a sedentary lifestyle, are unmotivated to start, or find exercising to be an arduous task. However, there are some steps that you can take to ensure physical activity becomes a more habitual part of your day.
1. Start Small and Smart
Most people go from 0 to 100 when beginning an exercise routine. As motivation levels are high during the beginning stages, it is easy to overextend yourself and then experience burnout. Instead, give yourself permission to achieve one small goal at a time. For example, by engaging in 5-10 minutes of exercise that increases over time.
When you choose to exercise is important. Aim to schedule your workouts at a time when your energy level is highest and you are more likely to complete the routine. Do not be dismayed if you are unable to get your workout in at 5:00 am. Instead, opt for an evening walk or run. However, try not to exercise too close to bed time as it can interrupt your sleep.
3. Make it a Lifestyle
Find ways to incorporate physical activity into your everyday life. You do not have to force yourself to spend hours at a gym. Instead, sneak activities into your normal routine. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, park further rather than nearer to your workplace or supermarket. Another option can include engaging in desk workouts while at work, or standing/sitting workouts while watching the television.
This website has great resources on 'deskercise': Deskercise! 33 Smart Ways to Exercise at Work
4. Focus on Activities you Enjoy
A major part of enjoying a physical activity, is the sense of accomplishment that is felt after. Your level of self-efficacy, the belief that you have in your ability to accomplish a goal, is closely tied to your engagement in that activity. If you start off with activities that are too difficult, for example CrossFit type exercises, you may find your motivation quickly dwindles. Instead, chose physical activities that are both rewarding and achievable. Some people find dance exercises to be enjoyable (e.g. Zumba, wine-aerobics), while others prefer the structure of an indoor class (e.g. Spins) and others may prefer outdoor options (e.g. walking, jogging or running, or CORE Wellness TT's Group Sessions).
This website has excellent workout options that you can explore: Over 110 Cardio Workout Ideas
5. Reward Yourself
Rewarding yourself for exercising can boost your motivation levels. Before beginning your exercise program, take note of your starting point and reward yourself for small accomplishments. An effective reward system would align with, not contradict your goals. So, ensure that you don’t reward yourself with doubles or pasta after every workout. Additionally, avoid withholding rewards as punishment if goals are not met. Simply revise your reward schedule.
About the Author
Alina Williams, PsyD
Dr. Alina Williams is a Clinical Psychologist at the Scarborough General Hospital, as well as an Adjunct Lecturer at COSTAATT, where she has lectured in the psychology degree programme for the past 7 years.
She is an avid reader, aiming for 25-30 books per year and a fitness enthusiast, having been an athlete and footballer. She enjoys travelling, and has visited over 20 countries ranging from Caribbean islands such as Barbados, St. Lucia, and Grenada to as far as India, Vietnam, Thailand and South Korea.
Her aim is to raise the awareness of mental health and stress-related disorders in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean by extension.
If you have any questions, contact Dr. Alina Williams at 1(868) 288-4008