Exercise For Your Mental Well-Being

It is common knowledge that physical exertion and exercise have dramatic impacts on our physical health. All nutritional programs will tell you that the combination of nutrition and exercise is the key to staying physically healthy. There is an abundance of evidence confirming that physical activity can improve chronic conditions and prevent many serious medical conditions. Even the Jewish sage the Rambam wrote, approximately 900 years ago, that nothing can be found as a substitute for exercise in any way. What is less known, however, but just as powerful, is the impact that exercise can have on our mental state.

Exercise and Mental Well-Being

Studies show that exercise can assist in addressing mild to moderate depression. As one example, a recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. Exercise is a powerful depression fighter for several reasons. Firstly, it promotes various changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, as well as new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. Physical exertion also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals in your brain that both energize your spirits and make you feel good. Finally, exercise also can serve as a distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression.

Physical activity also helps quell anxiety. Exercise relaxes our muscles and relieves tension in our bodies. Since the body and mind are so closely linked, when your body feels calmer so, too, your mind will. Our sleep quality is also directly improved by physical activity, and a restful night of sleep can help us stay calm and grounded.

Sustaining a consistent workout routine can also improve our self-esteem. Regular activity is an investment in our mind, body, and soul. When it becomes a habit, it can foster our sense of self-worth and make us feel strong and powerful. We feel better about our appearance and, by meeting even small exercise goals, feel a sense of achievement in our habit building.

Starting To Exercise

How do we start? What if we’ve never tried a full workout routine? Does this mean I need to start going to the gym every day for an hour to mentally benefit from exercise?

No. As James Clear talks about in his book Atomic Habits (2018), the way to accomplish our goals is not to merely focus on radical change:

We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter in the moment. If you go to the gym three days in a row, you’re still out of shape…Making a choice that is one percent better or one percent worse seems insignificant in the moment, but in the span of moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be.” (p.17)

When we focus only on the long-term goal, the perfect workout routine, we can get disheartened every time we fall down. There will be times when we make unproductive choices. There will be times when we don’t feel like getting off the couch and jogging around the block.

Taking Those Small Steps

What’s most important is that we focus on a small step or two that we can take, towards achieving the healthiest version of ourselves.

  1. Take a 10 minute walk each day. Just getting out of the house and breathing in some fresh air will get your blood flowing and heart pumping. If you go grocery shopping and there’s a large parking lot, park towards the outer edge to get more walking done. Also, putting our carts back, not only helps the parking lot attendants, but gives us extra steps.
  2. Stretch for 2 minutes daily. Stretching relieves some tension in our muscles and will feel freeing. Flexibility in our body will make our daily tasks easier, reducing some triggers of stress in our lives.
  3. Meditate for 5 minutes. Meditation is something I’ve started recently, just closing my eyes and breathing slowly for a few minutes. Whether it’s guided meditation with a YouTube clip, or just focusing on our breath for a few minutes, clearing our heads helps us detox and maintain our emotional equilibrium.
  4. Do a few push-ups. If you find the thought of even doing one push-up too challenging, try a few push-ups against the wall while standing. Slowly we can build up, week after week, and build upon our previous milestones.

Short-Term and Long-Term

Whenever making a goal, it is crucial to focus on both the short-term and long-term milestones. Having a vision of the short-term will allow us to feel like we are accomplishing on a daily and weekly basis. Long-term goals enlighten us on what is possible if we stay focused and consistent. The combination of these tools can provide us with the keys to success.

Choose Health!

Choi KW, Chen C, Stein MB, et al. Assessment of Bidirectional Relationships Between Physical Activity and Depression Among Adults: A 2-Sample Mendelian Randomization Study. JAMA Psychiatry. 2019;76(4):399–408. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.4175

Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Avery

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Avi Friedman, MFT
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