Exercise and Mental Health

As a fitness professional, I have had the privilege of working with many clients, from teenagers to retirees, weekend warrior to athlete. Before we ever do any exercise, I sit every single person down for a thorough evaluation. Together, we discuss current health, fitness level, and any injuries that may have occurred in the past, and we create the best plan to help you reach your fitness destination – your goals! Some of the goals I have helped become a reality include better endurance for an upcoming backpacking trip, sports improvement, injury prevention, post-surgery fitness and, of course, desire for a certain physical appearance.

What do all of those goals have in common? While they are all excellent reasons to seek out a fitness professional, they are all focused on what exercise can do for a person physically. Though many scientific studies have shown exercise to be beneficial for mental health, the gap between ‘knowing’ and ‘implementing’ is evident in how often the benefits of exercises for a person mentally are overlooked within gyms and fitness clubs. So, what are the mental benefits of exercise?

The Mental Benefits of Exercise

Many studies have shown exercise to help depression and anxiety, improve sleep, reduce stress, and even improve the symptoms of ADHD1. As an advocate for educating others on the mental benefits of exercise, I request that my clients pay attention to any changes that they notice in these areas, in addition to changes they are seeking that bring them closer to their goals. Often times, my clients are thrilled to report that they feel calmer, happier, sleep better, and experience less brain-fog!

But can exercise be helpful in the healing of extreme cases of mental illnesses?

Therapists are now recognizing the benefits of exercise in their therapy sessions focused on depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and eating disorders, among others2. With medications that target these mental illnesses, there are often long lists of side effects, some of which can worsen the illness it is trying to treat, or even cause another mental illness in its place. Not only is exercise being acknowledged for the impact that it can have on such illnesses without the risk of side effects, but it is also being acknowledged that exercise can be successful in preventing the return of symptoms.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is among other mental illnesses that exercise is beneficial for 3. Studies have shown PTSD to have negative effects on the brain and nervous system of the body4.

Exercise allows someone suffering from PTSD to approach their hyperarousal symptoms in a safe and controlled environment, allowing the body to change its perception of these symptoms as healthy, instead of as signs of danger5. This allows your nervous system to also find balance and release traumatic memory, in simpler terms.

Putting Science into Practice

The science sounds great, but can it REALLY be implemented by the average person? YES! My own journey is proof of that. By the time I was 20 years old, I had spent just half of my life in abusive situations. It was no mystery why I was diagnosed with PTSD at the age of 21. Though the anxiety from my PTSD was very severe and a simple trip to the grocery store was a challenge, I wanted to attempt various healing strategies before allowing my life to become dependent on the medication. I turned to fitness and took a particular interest in strength training. It took time to reverse so many years of abuse within my mind and body, but every minute was worth the effort! The science above all contributed to my healing, but in addition to the scientific benefits, I gained empowerment. The stronger I became physically, the more confident I became in my ability to protect myself against future threats.

I have also been very fortunate to be given opportunities to volunteer my experiences and fitness expertise for organizations that provide safety and services for survivors of abuse. To be a small part in someone else’s healing journey has been one of the most rewarding parts of my fitness career, and each person teaches me something as well.

How to Get Started When Starting Seems Hard

Is getting started easy? Not always, unfortunately. Depression could cause a lack of motivation to get started. Those who suffer from PTSD or anxiety may find the different sensations of working out to be very uncomfortable in the beginning, as they can be similar to their symptoms. One who is chronically stressed may become overwhelmed at the thought of adding something else into their routine.

It does get better though! Just keep these things in mind as you begin your fitness journey:

  1. Keep at it! Give yourself time to get adjusted to your workout routine and be patient if you don’t see changes as quickly as you’d like. The wait is worth the results!
  2. Listen to your body. Start out slowly and gradually add to your fitness routine, as you feel more comfortable.
  3. The idea of spending hours at the gym is daunting for any beginner, but that isn’t required to reap the benefits of exercise! Start out with 30 minutes a day for 3 days per week, and work your way up to 30 minutes a day for 5 days per week. A brisk walk or workout in your own home will suffice. Not as scary, right?
  4. Talk to someone who supports you. This person can also hold you accountable for working towards your goals, while still showing understanding when you are struggling.

Of course, you should always speak with your doctor before starting a new workout program, but with the many benefits that could await you, I’d say a call to the doctor is worth making! You can also use the Find Your Trainer platform to find a fitness trainer that is perfect for you to help guide you along your fitness journey!

1https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-health-benefits-of-exercise.htm
2https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-guide/exercise-and-mental-health-treatments
3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25443996
4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3182008/
5https://www.verywellmind.com/exercise-for-ptsd-2797465

 

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