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 profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety, ADHD, and more. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts overall mood. And you don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits. 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.
– Exercise and depression. Maintaining an exercise schedule can help promote all kinds of changes in the brain. Some of these might include: neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. Exercise also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals in your brain that energize your spirits and make you feel good. Exercise can also serve as a distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of a cycle of negative thoughts.
– Exercise and anxiety. Anything that gets you moving can help, but adding a mindfulness element while you move —really focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise—can help improve your physical condition faster, and may also be able to interrupt the flow of constant worries running through your head.
– Exercise and ADHD. Exercising regularly is one of the most effective ways to reduce the symptoms of ADHD and improve concentration, motivation, memory, and mood. Physical activity immediately boosts the brain’s dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels—all of which affect focus and attention.
– Exercise and PTSD and trauma. Evidence suggests that by really focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise, you can actually help your nervous system become “unstuck” and begin to move out of the immobilization stress response that characterizes PTSD or trauma. Instead of thinking about other things, try being mindful by paying close attention to the physical sensations in your joints and muscles, even your insides as your body moves. Exercises that involve cross movement and that engage both arms and legs—such as walking (especially in sand), running, swimming, weight training, or dancing—are some of your best choices.
Outdoor activities like hiking, sailing, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and skiing (downhill and cross-country) have also been shown to reduce the symptoms of PTSD.
When you’re under the cloud of an emotional disorder and haven’t exercised for a long time, setting yourself extravagant goals like completing a marathon or working out for an hour every morning could only leave you feeling more despondent if you fall short. Better to set yourself small achievable goals and build up from there. Meeting with a psychologist to help you set these achievable goals is a great place to start.