Can Physical Fitness Improve Psychological Wellbeing?

There are many reasons to lace up your sneakers and take yourself on a slow stroll along a winding wooded path, hoist some weights, or climb up on a Peloton and pedal your way into a drenching sweat. They include increased strength, flexibility, endurance, stamina, weight loss, muscle building, stress management and even meditation. Did you know that exercise, in whatever form you do it, has also been shown to have a positive impact on mental health?

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Exercise helps prevent and improve many health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. Research on depression, anxiety and exercise shows that the mental health and physical benefits of exercise also can help mood get better and lessen anxiety.”

Research into the impact of exercise on our psychological state is expanding. It has been found that moving our bodies, whether it is through the practice of yoga, turning on music and dancing in the living room, jumping rope, playing hopscotch, swimming laps, or engaging in cardio at the gym shows improvement in mood and affect.

I correlate it to the idea that emotions are ‘energy in motion,’ and when we sit immobile, and contemplate all of the negative aspect of our lives, the energy feels like it is being drained from us. When we get up and engage in physical activity, even if it is for a short period of time, without even breaking a sweat, we are moving that energy. I encourage my clients to do something each day which has them recharge their physiological and psychological batteries.

The Department of Health and Human Services offers their recommendation for how much is just right when it comes to exercise.  They suggest 150 minutes or 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic activity a week, or 75 minutes of more high intensity activity.  If that seems daunting at first, start slowly and build your way up. If you are using machines at the gym, begin with a 5-minute workout. If even 5 minutes feels too challenging, start with 3 minutes. Commend yourself for doing what you can. Listen to your body and rest when need be. Switch up activities to make it more interesting. Choose different times during the day or evening to engage in a fitness routine.  If working out on your own is not motivating enough, find a workout buddy. Go dancing, whether it is ballroom, contra dancing, hip-hop, Zumba, belly or improv.

Take note that when you are in the midst of lethargy about walking into a gym alone, working out may feel like the last thing you want to do. Once you take the first step you are likely to notice a sense of invigoration and accomplishment, which can, in and of itself, be a mood booster.

What if you can’t bring yourself to go elsewhere to work out? At the height of the pandemic, a friend put her gym membership on hold and created a makeshift gym in her living room. A recumbent bicycle, yoga mat, exercise ball and hand weights enabled her to get through feelings of fear, hopelessness, despair, and anxiety that many were experiencing while intending to remain healthy. Once she was vaccinated and boosted, she felt more comfortable returning to the gym and has been enjoying regular visits to the ‘Judgment Free Zone’ (Planet Fitness).

She noted that her mood lifted dramatically, with each hoist of a weight, each pedal of a bike, each step on an elliptical, each pull on the rowing machine. She leaves there feeling accomplished, having left her stress reaction behind.

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