I’m a much more pleasant person to be around after I run. I often say this jokingly, but it isn’t so far from the truth. For the better half of a decade, I have relied on running to improve my mood, boost my energy and shed my anxiety. Most of the time, it works.
Public health experts agree: Regular exercise is a powerful tool to improve mental and emotional health. It can be the first thing a doctor recommends to a patient seeking treatment for their mental health, and for good reason.
By promoting neural growth, reducing inflammation, releasing endorphins and forging new activity patterns within the brain, exercise can fight depression. It may also reduce anxiety, prompting mindfulness and a release of physical tension. An exercise routine can even regulate your sleep pattern and reduce nighttime insomnia — a benefit that could be heavily appreciated by students stuck on Zoom late in the evening. Although it is not quantifiable, a sense of purpose existing outside of the academic or professional world can be provided by an exercise routine.
But an exercise regime can quickly go south for a time-crunched student or individuals who struggle with body image issues. Luckily, there are a few strategies that may allow someone to reap the benefits of exercise without draining their mental wellness.
If you aren’t sure where to start, commit to just 10 minutes of intentional movement. For 10 minutes, remove yourself from screens and other distractions and give undivided attention to your workout. When the time is up, you have a chance to reevaluate: If you’re enjoying the exercise, you’ll likely want to continue. If not, that’s OK too — 10 minutes is 10 times better than nothing.
Running, yoga, biking, hiking and swimming are great options. Whatever movement you prefer, try to take it outside. Research has proven that spending time in nature offers therapeutic benefits that can profoundly improve mental health. If everyone wears a mask and stays 6 feet apart, exercising outdoors with friends outside of your household is generally considered low risk. Finding friends to set goals with might help alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation worsened by remote learning.
Finally, celebrate your abilities. Too often, working out draws attention to what your body looks like, which can lead to image issues, self-comparison and insecurity. Training your mind to focus on your body’s capabilities instead of its appearance can be a great way to escape a negative headspace. For example, celebrate a faster mile time, longer mileage or increased reps, not the weight you see on the scale.
For some people, exercise alone might not be enough. That is entirely valid.
Therapy and medication can also be extremely helpful in improving mental health and supporting a balanced lifestyle. There is nothing wrong with seeking other avenues of treatment if you’re struggling.
When done mindfully, a healthy exercise routine can typically make you feel stronger, healthier and happier. In a world of so much chaos, getting outside and moving is something we still have control over. Allowing yourself the time to be active is an act of unconditional self-love — a love we all deserve.
Even if everything else in my life fails, my Altra running shoes and Garmin watch will be there, ready to head out the door. Maybe, sometime in the future, I won’t need to run every day to feel OK, but I’m in no hurry to figure that out. For now, I’m content lacing up and pounding the pavement.
Contact Sarah Siegel at [email protected].