May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to highlight the importance of mental health and wellness. Our mental health affects how we think, feel, and act, and it also helps determine how we deal with stress, connect with others, and make decisions in our lives. Mental health is important for our overall health and wellbeing, affecting us physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Just like having to work to keep your body healthy, you also have to work to keep your mind healthy, too.
There are many ways to improve and maintain good mental health and wellbeing, but my personal favorite is staying physically active. Regular exercise and physical activity can help improve your mood and sleep, reduce stress levels, and contribute to overall physical health.
Benefits of Exercise
There are plenty of benefits of staying active, both physically and mentally. Here are just a few:
Eases symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Physical activity boosts endorphin levels in our brains, helping improve mental health. Endorphins are the “feel good” chemicals in our brains that give us feelings of happiness and euphoria. Many athletes and avid gym goers refer to this release of endorphins as “runner’s high.” Even just a couple hours of light exercise throughout the week can greatly reduce the risk of major depression and severe anxiety.
Decreases stress levels
- Regular exercise can help reduce stress levels, something that many deal with in every aspect of their lives, especially with the uncertainty in the world. Increasing your heart rate helps stimulate the production of beneficial neurohormones in your brain, which helps improve cognition, mood, and ability to think clearly. It also helps decrease stress hormones in the body like cortisol, which contributes to the “fight-or-flight” feeling many of us feel in stressful situations. Exercise improves the body’s overall ability to respond to stress and reduce the muscle tension that stress causes.
Increases self-esteem and self-confidence
- Getting regular physical activity can help you lose weight, tone your body, and maintain a healthy glow. All of these physical achievements that come from exercise can add up to a subtle but significant boost in self-esteem, confidence, and mental health overall. Usually, the changes happen before you even realize it, but they’re part of the many benefits of physical activity that boosts your mind, body, and spirit!
Better sleep quality
- Sleep affects us physically, mentally, and emotionally. Getting plenty of sleep every night is essential for having energy physically and mentally every day. Physical activity increases your body temperature which creates a calming effect on your brain, leading to better sleep. It can also help regulate your sleep patterns, including when you feel tired and when you feel alert.
Improved brain function
- Regular exercise boosts our brain power and function in a number of ways. The same endorphins that can help you feel better mentally after exercising can also help you concentrate and strengthen your memory. Studies have also shown that exercise boosts creativity and mental energy overall.
How to Use Exercise to Improve Mental Health
You don’t need to take several hours out of your already hectic day to go to the gym or run seemingly endless miles to procure all the physical and mental health benefits of physical activity. Aiming for 30-60 minutes of moderate exercise or a combination of aerobic exercise and muscle-strengthening 3 to 5 times a week in plenty. This can be broken down into increments of 15 minutes or even 10 minutes of activity done throughout the day if that’s more feasible. If you don’t exercise regularly at the moment, that’s ok, start slowly with 5-10 minutes of exercise and slowly increase your time as your endurance increases.
While it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s the perfect time to focus on improving our mental health and finding healthy ways to maintain good mental wellbeing. Staying active is one of the best ways to improve your mental health overall, so get out there and get moving!