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Taking Steps for Your Mental Health

How to Reap The Many Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

About half of Americans are diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some time in their lives. Exercise can be an important way to manage mental health for all ages.

Exercise can do your body good – and your mind! According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression and negative mood. It also improves cognitive function, improves sleep and alleviates low self-esteem. It helps combat social withdrawal by providing opportunities to meet with others through sharing exercise and anxiety, according to the Mayo Clinic. By meeting even the smallest exercise goals, you improve your self-confidence. Exercise also provides individuals with a healthy coping mechanism for difficult life circumstances and mental health struggles. While it’s not a cure-all, exercise is an important component in the toolbox to care for your brain.

Certified Family Nurse Practitioner Kathleen Hyde, MSN, CRNP, FNP-C of CalvertHealth Primary Care in Prince Frederick, says the two most common barriers to physical activity she sees are time and embarrassment. Busy schedules with work, family, and other responsibilities don’t leave much more time in the day to go to the gym. Additionally, patients don’t want to start something new as a beginner in front of others at a gym or group fitness class. These factors often keep people from reaping the mental and physical benefits of exercise.

Practical Tips for Getting Started

Physical activity doesn’t have to be particularly long or intense to start realizing the mental health benefits.

“As a rule of thumb, it is recommended to engage in moderate-intensity exercise to gain the benefits of both physical and mental health. Moderate-intensity exercise means an activity that will raise your heart rate and make you breathe harder, but still allows you to carry on a conversation,” Hyde said.

It’s also important to listen to your body and choose activities you truly enjoy and can continue to do long-term. It’s important to vary the type of exercise and varying the intensity to reduce boredom and reduce the risk of overuse injuries.

“When it comes to time constraints, I tell my patients all the same thing: You don’t have to do it all at once. Walking for 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening is perfectly acceptable! Look for ways to incorporate short bursts of activity into your day,” Hyde said.

It’s Important to Prioritize Yourself

While squeezing in short bursts of activity is one tactic to get more exercise, it’s also important to have a mentality of prioritizing yourself. “I also highly recommend prioritizing yourself. This means carving out a block of time to work out every day, just as you would schedule an appointment for the doctor or dentist,” Hyde said.

Find the time of your day where you can most easily get in physical activity and put it on your calendar and organize the rest of your day around that. If working out first thing in the morning works best for you, set your workout clothing by your bed the night before. Try using part of your lunch break to take a walk or do a YouTube workout class and block that time out on your calendar.

Hyde also sees finances are another common barrier to physical fitness. Hyde suggests exploring free and low-cost options including walking, hiking, bodyweight workouts at home and free YouTube workouts. Joining a gym or fitness studio isn’t the only option. Another major barrier to physical fitness is embarrassment and the fear of starting something new.

“Embarrassment is one of the hardest barriers to overcome. I remind my patients that everyone has to start somewhere and progress takes time. It helps to surround yourself with supportive and non-judgmental people who will encourage you on your journey. Don’t be too hard on yourself and celebrate all of your achievements no matter how small. When beginning an activity routine- start with activities that you enjoy and feel comfortable doing- whether it is solo or with a group,” Hyde said.

She went on to add, “While exercise is generally beneficial for most people, there are certain situations where it’s important to get medical clearance or guidance before beginning a new regimen. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that exercise is safe, enjoyable and beneficial for each individual’s unique health needs and circumstances.”

FUN WAYS to Exercise

When possible, make exercise something you enjoy to ensure you keep coming back to exercise for the mental and physical health benefits. Consider your existing interests and hobbies when choosing a way to move your body.
  • If you love to read, try listening to an attention grabbing audiobook while walking and reserve that book only for use while moving your body. If audiobooks aren’t your speed, consider purchasing a Kindle and a remote page turner for easy reading while in movement on a cardio machine.
  • If you love video games, consider workout technology that incorporates gamification aspects, like Peloton’s Lanebreak or workout games in virtual reality, like Beatsaber.
  • If you love your latest binge-worthy TV series, pick a show to designate as your workout-only show. Have it playing on a tablet mounted on your cardio machine of choice. Only watch this show if you’re also moving your body.
  • If you love hanging out with friends, pick a day of the week to do an evening neighborhood walk and rotate whose neighborhood you visit to walk and talk. Or, pick a group fitness class to go to together each week and try new ones.
  • If you love to visit coffee shops, park a mile away from a coffee shop you’ve been meaning to try instead of their parking lot.
  • If you love cooking/baking, cook a double batch of a health recipe and deliver the extras on foot to a neighbor.
  • If you love to be on the water, try kayaking, stand up paddleboarding (purchasing inflatable options are more affordable and portable!), or swim laps at a local pool.
  • If you love to spend time with your children, try volunteering with a youth recreational sports team.
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