The Link Between Exercise and Mental Health is Stronger Than You think

Have you been finding it more difficult to find the motivation to get moving these days? We all know that exercise is good for our bodies, so why do we so often neglect slipping into a pair of sneakers and hitting the trails, treadmill, or simply walking around the neighborhood?

Physical limitations like foot pain, back pain, plantar fasciitis, amongst other health concerns are all reasons that keep many of us from fitting in a few minutes of exercise. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have fallen out of our normal routines and are struggling to navigate the waters that come along with isolation and uncertainty. If you’ve been feeling similarly, you’re not alone! Studies have shown that exercise is not only important for maintaining our physical health, but it’s also an extremely effective tool for maintaining our mental health.
One of the biggest challenges of exercising isn’t necessarily the physical challenges, but the mental aspect that comes along with it. Getting motivated is one of the toughest roadblocks for anyone struggling with their mental health, especially since we’ve been couped up in our homes. With winter in full swing, it’s become even more difficult to convince ourselves to go outside and get some exercise. Even just strolling through the neighborhood in your walking shoes could feel impossible. However, if you knew that you were taking care of your mind, body, & soul through 30 minutes of exercise per day… would you do it? Here’s a few reasons why you should.
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According to the well-known National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), exercising increases our natural levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in our brains. Studies have shown that regular exercise provides enhanced mood and energy levels, better memory and cognitive functioning, stress reduction, creativity, and self-esteem.  
Doing regular cardio-focused workouts has long-term effects on one’s mental health, encouraging the growth of new blood vessels that nourish your brain. The volume of the hippocampus (the part of your brain that’s associated with memory and learning) has been found to increase in the brains of regular exercisers. David J. Linden, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University of Medicine says, “voluntary exercise is the single best thing one can do to slow the cognitive decline that accompanies normal aging.”
 
If you’ve taken a physical education course, you might be familiar with FITT principles. FITT is an acronym for frequency (how often), intensity (level of difficulty), type (of exercise), and time (duration you exercise). Making a plan makes it much easier to exercise. Establishing a FITT plan is a great start to get moving, whether it be hiking, running, weightlifting, walking, you-name-it. Just make a plan (and stick to it!).
 
While gyms may be closing (again), that doesn’t mean that we can’t tackle our new year’s resolutions head-on. Having an exercise buddy to keep you accountable is a great way to stay on track and keep a momentum going. Unfortunately, due to restrictions set in place by the pandemic, it’s more difficult to get together as we used to. Next time you’re thinking of working out, ask your friend if they’ll join you on a video-call while following the same workout video or routine. Take your furry friend out for a walk with a family member or practice your breathing on a yoga mat. We’re all in this together!


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