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Exercise for Mental Health: Why Your Workouts Are Essential

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Exercise for Mental Health: Why Your Workouts Are Essential

We are seeing a real shift in how fitness is perceived. Exercise is becoming a means for mental health, not just looking “good”. Exercise naturally provides a solution by reducing stress hormones, promoting relaxation, and boosting mood through the release of endorphins. If exercise combats stress, and cumulative stresses causes mental health issues, then exercise must be an invaluable wellness tool.

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There’s a growing body of research showing the significant benefits of exercise for mental health. Regular physical activity has been proven to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress, while also enhancing mood and overall psychological wellbeing. Awareness of this is spreading, prompting more people to exercise with mental health being the primary motivation!

Culturally, there’s a gradual shift in the perception of body image and beauty standards. While there’s still pressure to conform to certain ideals, there’s also a rising acceptance of diverse body types and a greater emphasis on self-acceptance and self-love. This change encourages individuals to focus less on achieving a particular look and more on how exercise makes them feel.

The full spectrum of benefits of exercise are also celebrated within the wellness movement, which advocates for a holistic approach to health encompassing physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Exercise is seen as a vital aspect of this holistic lifestyle.

Social media, despite its drawbacks in perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards, also serves as a platform for individuals to share their personal stories and experiences with exercise and mental health. Some fitness influencers are even rejecting the aesthetic aspect of it altogether!

 

How does cumulative stress cause mental health issues?

Stress can impact mental health in several ways, and prolonged or chronic stress can contribute to the development or exacerbation of mental health issues. Here’s how stress can eventually lead to mental health problems:

Disruption of neurotransmitters

Chronic stress can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters play crucial roles in regulating mood, emotions, and cognitive function. Imbalances in neurotransmitter levels can contribute to conditions like depression, anxiety, or mood disorders.

Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation

When the body experiences stress, the hypothalamus in the brain signals the adrenal glands to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. In cases of chronic stress, this HPA axis can become dysregulated, leading to prolonged elevation of cortisol levels. High cortisol levels have been associated with conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Impact on brain function

Prolonged stress can lead to structural and functional changes in the brain, particularly in areas involved in emotional regulation, memory, and decision-making. These changes can increase vulnerability to mental health disorders and impair cognitive function.

Negative coping mechanisms

When individuals are under stress, they may adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, overeating, or social withdrawal. These behaviors can exacerbate stress levels and contribute to the development of mental health issues like substance use disorders, eating disorders, or social anxiety.

Sleep issues

Stress can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insomnia or poor sleep quality. Sleep disturbances are closely linked to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Lack of restorative sleep can further exacerbate stress levels and contribute to a cycle of negative mood and impaired cognitive function.

 

Exercise for mental health

Research consistently demonstrates that exercise for mental health is a powerful stress-reducer. It lowers levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline while triggering the release of endorphins, which improve mood. Regular physical activity also enhances coping skills, improves sleep quality, and reduces perceived stress levels.

Long-term engagement in exercise is associated with a decreased risk of chronic stress-related conditions like depression and anxiety disorders. Additionally, participating in group exercise activities can provide social support, further buffering against the negative effects of stress. Overall, incorporating exercise into daily routines is an effective strategy for managing stress and promoting well-being.

 

The physical symptoms of stress and how exercise helps

Stress can manifest in various physical symptoms, and these symptoms can vary from person to person. We’re going to go through some of the main symptoms of stress and how exercise alleviates them.

Muscle tension

Stress causes muscles to tighten, leading to tension headaches, neck pain, shoulder pain, or backaches.

Regular exercise, especially combined with relaxation techniques such as meditation and breathwork, can provide effective relief of muscle tension.

Digestive issues

Stress can affect the digestive system, leading to symptoms such as stomach pain, indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, or constipation.

Exercise aids digestion by increasing blood flow to the digestive organs, which enhances their function and promotes nutrient absorption. Physical activity stimulates the muscles in the abdomen, helping to move food through the digestive tract more efficiently. It also reduces the time food spends in the intestines, which can alleviate symptoms of constipation and bloating.

Fatigue

Chronic stress can result in feelings of fatigue or exhaustion, even after adequate rest or sleep.

Exercise aids in reducing fatigue by boosting energy levels through various mechanisms. It stimulates the production of endorphins, neurotransmitters that promote feelings of well-being and combat fatigue. Additionally, exercise increases blood flow and oxygen delivery to muscles, enhancing their efficiency and reducing feelings of tiredness.

Changes in appetite

Stress can either increase or decrease appetite, leading to overeating or undereating.

Exercise helps maintain a healthy appetite by regulating appetite hormones – like ghrelin, which signal hunger, and levels of hormones like leptin, which signal satiety – and improving metabolic function. This hormonal balance helps regulate appetite and prevent overeating or undereating.

Additionally, exercise stimulates metabolic rate, leading to increased energy expenditure and a greater need for fuel. This can naturally stimulate hunger cues, encouraging individuals to consume the appropriate amount of food to meet their energy needs. Regular exercise also promotes better blood sugar control, reducing fluctuations that can trigger cravings or affect appetite regulation.

Sleep issues

Stress can disrupt sleep patterns, causing difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restful sleep.

Exercise aids sleep by promoting relaxation and reducing stress, both of which are essential for a good night’s rest. Physical activity increases the production of endorphins, which act as natural sedatives, promoting feelings of calmness and relaxation conducive to sleep. Exercise also helps regulate the body’s internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm, by promoting a consistent sleep-wake cycle.

P.S. If you’re experiencing menopause and sleep issues, we have a special post for you! Check out our blog ‘Sleep Solutions for Menopausal Women‘.

Changes in heart rate and blood pressure

Stress can temporarily increase heart rate and blood pressure, which, if persistent, may contribute to long-term cardiovascular issues.

Exercise regulates blood pressure and heart rate numerous ways. Firstly, regular physical activity strengthens the heart, improving its efficiency during rest and exercise. Exercise also promotes vasodilation, leading to increased blood flow and reduced resistance in the arteries, thus lowering blood pressure.

Exercise also reduces stress and triggers the release of endorphins, promoting relaxation and lowering heart rate. Finally, regular physical activity enhances autonomic nervous system control, balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches and improving heart rate and blood pressure regulation.

Skin problems

Stress can exacerbate skin conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, or hives.

Exercise improves skin issues through several mechanisms. Physical activity promotes better blood circulation, delivering oxygen and nutrients to the skin while removing toxins and waste products, which can improve skin health and appearance. Because exercise contributes to overall health and well-being, it indirectly supporting skin health by promoting a balanced immune system and reducing inflammation.

Curious to know more about how exercise could improve your skin? We love this post by Self Magazine – ‘6 Ways Working Out Affects Your Skin‘.

In essence, the shift towards seeing exercise as a means of feeling good and supporting mental health reflects a more balanced and holistic approach to health and wellness. While appearance-related goals may still be relevant to some, there’s an increasing recognition that true fitness encompasses mental wellbeing. We love that this is becoming

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