What I’ve Learned about Exercise and Mental Health

A man runs down a road, away from the camera. He's out of focus and the texture of the road is close-up.
Photo by lucas Favre on Unsplash

In honor of #letstalk, this week’s post will be about the correlation between exercise and good mental health.

In my own experiences with depression, I’ve found that exercise gives me a space to focus, to care for myself, and to think positively about myself, which is something I don’t often do when I’m in the midst of an episode of mental illness.

It’s important to remember that mental illness can look very different from person to person. If you suspect you may be mentally ill, don’t keep it bottled up – get help! Talk to your doctor, call up a friend, and/or check out this page of mental health resources offered by U of T.

If I’m having a bad day or am stuck in a loop of negative thoughts, exercise always makes me feel better. Exercise provides short-term mood enhancement: it releases endorphins in the brain that make you feel good! As noted by Elle Woods when defending a murder suspect in Legally Blonde: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t shoot their husbands. They just don’t.” Other studies have shown that regular exercise can be an effective long-term treatment method for depressive or anxiety disorders.

Smaller things, such as positive thinking and mindfulness, often help me to feel better. Exercise is great for both of those things. When I’m running, I let myself fully feel whatever is happening, whether it’s my feet hitting the ground or my muscles burning or the fact that in that moment, I really hate running! Focusing on how I feel when I exercise helps me to break free from the cycle of negative thoughts because it gives my brain something to be fully occupied with, and that feels so good. Positive thinking comes in when I set little goals for myself, such as running 2 more laps or running until I reach the corner of the next block. I end up giving myself little pep talks in my head like You’re doing great! You can do this! Just a little further! When I finish a workout, I feel calm and satisfied, and my brain feels quieter – as if going for a run actually helps me to run away from negative feelings.

 Listening to music that makes me feel strong, powerful, and joyful also helps me think positively. Fall Out Boy’s new album Mania is excellent for this purpose: “If I can live through this, I can do anything.” I also repeat to myself a mantra from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: “You can stand anything for ten seconds. Then you just start on a new ten seconds.” If I can make it through a difficult workout, I can make it through depression. I just have to take it one step at a time.

In short, if you’re struggling with mental illness, I would highly recommend starting a moderate exercise routine! Try out something that doesn’t push you past the breaking point: start off gentle. You’ll learn to love it and to really enjoy yourself during the time that you spend exercising!

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