By Michelle Murdolo, MS, RD, CDN
We often hear about the benefits of exercise for our physical health and why we should increase our activity level. But what about our mental health? Research suggests that exercise also benefits our mind.
Numerous studies have found exercise to be a good strategy for preventing and treating depression and/or anxiety. During exercise the brain releases chemicals that make us feel good (endorphins, dopamine, serotonin). These are similar to the chemicals found in antidepressant medications. This may partially explain why exercise can benefit our mental health.
It’s also been noted that exercise helps to improve our confidence and self-esteem. When we go to the gym or to exercise classes, we’re able to meet new people and build relationships. We also feel more positive when we learn and master new skills or develop new hobbies. Taking on these new challenges helps us to feel more capable, and proud of all we can do. The more we focus on exercise to explore things we enjoy, calm our minds, and celebrate our bodies, the more our minds can benefit from it.
Here are some tips when beginning or continuing an exercise routine:
- Start with small, achievable goals. If you are new to exercise setting a goal of exercising 5 days a week for 30-60 minutes may be a bit too hefty. Start by adding in 5-10 minutes a few days a week and build from there. Unrealistic goals may leave us feeling like we failed and lead to cutting our goal short. When we set achievable goals that we’re able to accomplish we feel motivated and proud of ourselves.
- Choose something you enjoy. If you hate running, don’t run! If you love dancing, take a Zumba or other dance class. If you like being around others, try going to a class or working out at home with a friend. Choose your workout based on things you already know you like. Remember, if you hate your workout it’s not sustainable.
- Don’t force it. Some days we have tons of energy and are excited and ready for our workout. Some days we feel drained and dread exercise. Don’t force yourself to exercise on days it makes you miserable or exercise will begin to feel like a chore and you’ll never want to do it.
- If you don’t feel comfortable going to a gym or a fitness studio there are plenty of options for at home workouts. You can go on YouTube and search a type of workout you’re interested in. If you have a smartphone there are tons of fitness apps available, some are free, and some have a subscription cost. You can also find workout videos on social media platforms such as Facebook or Instagram.
- Remember- when it comes to exercise more is not always better. If you are pushing yourself past the limits of what your body is ready to do, forcing yourself to exercise for longer than appropriate, or making yourself exercise when you are fatigued or not in the right frame of mind for exercise you are not doing yourself any favors. You are putting more strain on your mind and body, increasing your cortisol levels, and not reaping the positive benefits that exercise has to offer.
If any of this sounds foreign to you or impossible to do right now, and in the past your focus has been on pushing yourself, focusing only on calorie burn and lowering the number on the scale, it may be time to heal your relationship with exercise. Take some time to think about what exercise means to you, do you get enjoyment out of it, and if not, what would change that? Think about why you exercise – can you find a reason not related to the scale? Take some time to appreciate all the things your body is capable of and celebrate the victories and accomplishments along the way. Remember to be patient and kind to yourself as you take time to explore what feels good for your body and what calms your mind.
Michelle Murdolo, MS, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist working to guide patients through their bariatric surgery and weight management journey. She comes from a background of eating disorders and disordered eating and emphasizes body positivity and health.