May 3, 2020

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Mariah Parker

Exercise And Mental Health

My quarantine habits snuck up on me. Sometime back in early March, I told myself I would put together a daily routine as soon as we figured out how to take MyWellbeing’s in-person therapy matchmaking service fully remote. I would definitely replace my daily walks with another form of exercise.

This Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re going on a journey to explore a few ways we can all become more aware of and improve our mental health. Join us on our blog, on social at @findmywellbeing, or in our newsletter. First up, we’re finding ways to sift through the noise of our various responsibilities to make time for our own wellbeing. Starting with exercise.

My quarantine habits snuck up on me.

Sometime back in early March, I told myself I would put together a daily routine as soon as we figured out how to take MyWellbeing’s in-person therapy matchmaking service fully remote. I would definitely replace my daily walks with another form of exercise.

Then, a few weeks later, Alyssa (our founder) touted the mental health benefits of both routines and exercise on our Instagram Lives and I told myself I’d definitely put a daily routine together. . .next week.

And now, in the first week of May, I’m looking at a daily routine that needs a few changes, including getting enough exercise.

If you feel the same way, you are not alone. There are so many other priorities to think about and work on that you can look up weeks later and realize that you need a bit more time in your day devoted to your wellbeing.

Not to worry, we’re here to help. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re sharing tips directly from the therapists we work with so that you can easily and quickly sneak some wellbeing into your day-to-day.

If you’re anything like me, your step-counter is blowing up your phone with reminders to walk. We hear you! Let’s break down this thing called exercise, together.

How Exercise Impacts Your Mental Health

Exercise is a natural place to start because it has so many positive impacts on our mental health.

As a quick overview, exercise can:

Courtney Darsa, a New York City dietician and member of the MyWellbeing community, explains how exercise impacts anxiety: “Exercise can also be a great way to help release endorphins and keep anxiety managed. Having a specific outlet for letting out anxiety out can help to prevent us from doing things such as emotional or stress eating.”

While we still don’t know everything about how and why exercise has these benefits, theories point to exercise’s impact on neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.

“Scientifically speaking, exercise produces more serotonin,  which is a chemical your nerve cells produce that makes you feel good,” explains Jana Dufort, a therapist in the MyWellbeing community and fitness expert. “When you have a shortage of serotonin, you may have low energy, negative thoughts, crave sweets, and have a reduced sex drive.  Just going for a walk or some light exercise will help create serotonin and directly affect your mental health positively.”

“Daily exercise gets your blood pumping, your heart rate up, and when strenuous enough it will make you feel sweaty and breathless; it takes you out of your head and into yourself,” adds Julie Iannone-Pastro. “You can feel your strength build from within both physically and mentally.  The after glow of exercise will improve your energy level and mood.”

Exercise as an affirmation

You may already be familiar with all the benefits of exercise listed above. However, the mental health benefits of exercise go beyond the immediate impact of activity on your physical health.

Exercise is a way of taking care of yourself, and by taking care of yourself, you can improve your self-esteem and heal from unmet needs.

“Sometimes we can move through life feeling small, invisible, overlooked. This often comes from emotional neglect we experienced early on, to varying degrees and in myriad ways,” Jennifer Glass, a therapist and MyWellbeing member, adds. “When we get the message in whatever form that we don't ‘matter,’ that can be internalized. We begin to believe that narrative and therefore neglect and abandon ourselves. Getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising are ways in which to nurture not only our bodies, but our selves. In doing so, we are saying ‘I am loveable and I matter,’ which is an affirmation we may find ourselves seeking from others. To truly heal that unmet need, it has to begin from within. Be good to yourself.”

Exercise can have benefits that are immediate and long-lasting, based on physical activity and based on a commitment to yourself and your wellbeing. With all of these advantages in mind, let’s discuss how we can make more time for exercise in our daily lives.

A Few Simple Ways To Get More Exercise

From “All or Nothing” to “Something is Everything”

I was the kid who ran the mile the slowest in elementary school. Suffice to say it took me a long time to find any aspect of exercise enjoyable, or even doable.

What helped me finally start exercising was shifting my mindset.

I had taken an all-or-nothing approach; I thought exercising was pointless if I was the slowest kid, or if I couldn’t do the hardest workout. I would start a workout tape that was far beyond my level and quit when it was too hard. The language of “bootcamps,” “shredding,” “burning,” and “domination” left me at the starting line.  

After reading about all the health benefits of exercise (particularly the mental health benefits), I decided that I needed to try to do something. I found a beginner workout program. The workouts were simple, but I could finish them.

The impact was transformative; I worked out every day and my lifelong undercurrent of anxiety eased. For the first time in my life, I had long periods where I felt completely at peace.

What matters most is doing something. You can start small and get better. You can learn and grow, and surprise yourself with what you’re able to do, and with the benefits exercise provides that you were not expecting.

The experts agree.

Julie says “If you're not a fan of exercise or new to it altogether, start small and gradually build. Go for a walk or a bike ride on a nice day; fresh air and sunlight are proven to help fight illness, and are a natural mood enhancer.”

Jana points out that “a small step to move towards increasing your serotonin can be to plan 15 minutes of movement a day.”

15 minutes a day is so much more achievable than the hardest workout you can imagine; and it really does make a difference.

Make a set time

Even when social distancing has wreaked havoc with our schedules, this key piece of advice is true. It is easier to exercise when you commit to exercising at a specific time each day or week.

You can even add your exercise plans to your planner. “Set your timer or calendar to remind you to walk or even get up and do some jumping jacks right in your office!” Jana Dufort says.

Scheduling time in advance helps you avoid times when you would usually be busy and make sure that there is space for exercise in your week. Try to find a time in your schedule when you don’t normally have conflicts.

However, setting a time in advance isn’t enough; you have to go through with your commitment when the time comes.

Treat appointments with yourself like work meetings,” suggests Alyssa, the founder of MyWellbeing. “Incentivize your following through (for example, treat yourself to a smoothie after your workout, or put $5 toward the shoes you are eyeing every time you go to the gym).”

The specific time that you work out does not matter nearly as much as whether that time works for you. You can work out when your energy is highest, or when you need a boost. You can work out before you need to tune into work, class, or an activity, or when you need to disconnect. There is no right time other than a time that you can stick to consistently.

Use a fitness tracking app

When you’re building (or changing) a fitness habit, it can be really helpful to track your workouts. A tracking app can help you see progress on weeks when you don’t feel like much has changed.

Depending on your health insurance, you may even get money back or rewards for the workouts that you track.

While you can absolutely get a wearable device or another tool if you would like, you don’t need to. There are several free fitness apps that provide workout tracking, and a few of them also integrate with health insurance rewards platforms.

Find the benefit of a single exercise session

I tried and failed to start exercising so many times in part because I was focused on the long-term benefits. It is hard to see the impact that exercise can have in a year or even a month in a single session. I would not see the changes I wanted to see, and walk away.

What made it easier for me to exercise was finding the immediate benefit of a single session and holding onto that. A single workout helps me focus. If I exercise in the morning, I’m more productive for my full workday.

After your next several workouts, practice mindfulness. How are you feeling in that moment? How are you feeling a few hours later? The next day? What benefits are you noticing?

On one of those days when it’s next to impossible to get started, don’t think about where you want to be in a year. Think about where you want to be in thirty minutes.

Moving away from a focus on long-term results to a focus on the short-term impact can help you keep going.

Learn what works best for you

The most important thing about exercise is to find out what works for you. If you want to work out with friends, that’s wonderful! If you want to work out alone in your apartment so you can yell “no” whenever a video instructor says “are you ready for this?”, that’s great too (and we may be twins).

If you don’t like a particular form of exercise, that is okay too. You don’t need to find a way to make yourself do it anyway; you can find something else that is more enjoyable and will still help you improve your mental and physical health.

Exercise Is Not A Cure-All

Exercise and nutrition can both have powerful positive impacts on your mental health. However, they are not blanket magic cures. Drinking a green juice every day does not cure burnout and regular exercise does not eradicate anxiety on its own.

If you want to improve your mental health, exercise can help, but you should also consider therapy. Therapy can help you build the skills and resilience to accept and weather any challenges. If you are struggling or feel that you need more support, it is particularly important to seek mental health care in addition to adding exercise to your routine.

The current times have changed the way that we exercise and pressed us to develop new routines and ways of staying healthy. However, incorporating exercise into your routine now will have a positive impact on your life, before and after social distancing ends. The habits you develop now can help you weather this storm and the storms that may come in the future.

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