Dal Banwait, @thehappiologist:
Recent global circumstances have certainly changed our lives. The positive takeaway from so much change and uncertainty is this: there’s no better time to be who we truly want to be. Now, we’re reconsidering our work life, personal life, and not only our health but also our mental health and the ways our routine impacts all of this.
That means there’s never been a better time to invest in yourself and your relationship with fitness. Why? A recent Freeletics study found that 44% of 2,000 Americans surveyed agreed that improved mental health was the most significant benefit of working out at home during the pandemic.
Let’s dig into why this is the case and find new goals to reframe fitness.
The Mental Health Benefits of Fitness
By now, we know the physical benefits of exercise well enough – lower blood pressure, better endurance, bigger, stronger, or more efficient muscles, and possibly even a slimmer physique. But have you ever stopped to think about what it can do for our brains?
The John W. Brick Foundation released a June 2021 meta-analysis which found that out of the 1,158 studies, 89% showed a significant, positive association between exercise and improved mental health.
Here are some of the ways exercise benefits our mental health:
1. Reduce Symptoms of Anxiety & Depression
In 2021, it was estimated that about 264 million people have depression, while 280 million people have anxiety. Exercise is famous for boosting our “feel good” hormones; it’s a natural mood booster.
Working out increases our endorphin levels and can help alleviate many symptoms experienced by those who have anxiety and depression. In the same Freeletics study mentioned above, 52% of the 2,000 surveyed experienced reduced anxiety after working out.
2. Experience Less Stress
We have been living through a seemingly unending global pandemic and experiencing unprecedented events nearly every month. Our stress levels are off the charts! Stress is problematic for your mind and your body.
As a response to stress, your adrenal glands produce cortisol. If cortisol levels are too high for a prolonged time, you can see an increase in abdominal fat, higher blood pressure, poor balance of blood sugar, and even a decrease in muscle tissue!
Working out is proven to lower our cortisol levels; exercising also forces our central and sympathetic nervous systems to talk to each other, coordinate, and collaborate on better stress responses.
Therefore, prioritizing working out as a way to manage stress benefits you holistically - mind and body!
3. Gain More Confidence
There is no better feeling than feeling good about yourself and working out can improve our self-confidence and self-esteem. This comes from showing up for ourselves in the gym and other areas of our lives, along with the physical achievements that come from regular exercise.
4. Boost Brain Performance
Studies have shown that cardio can create new brain cells and can improve overall brain performance in humans. Exercise strengthens our hippocampus - the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Plus, we can’t forget the energy and creativity boost we feel after exercise.
5. Sleep Better
Sleep is one of the most incredible things we can do for our bodies. Getting adequate sleep helps our physical recovery from the day’s efforts. Remember from just above the mention of stress and cortisol? Poor sleep can result in higher cortisol levels - it’s all connected.
Many experts in the field suggest that exercise is one of the best - if not the best - way to get a good night’s sleep. This is supported by a 2017 review carried in Advances in Preventative Medicine.
How does exercise help us improve sleep? The endorphins released in exercise help us to regulate our circadian rhythm (our internal clock) which signals our brains to tell us when to sleep and wake up and exercise increases the length of “slow-wave” sleep, the most important phase that helps maintain your metabolism. It doesn’t stop there. As mentioned before, endorphins can help with the symptoms of depression - and one major impact for those with depression might be insomnia.
The takeaway? Exercise leads directly to reduced stress levels, to better brain performance, and to a reduction in the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression. Exercise also leads directly to better sleep which indirectly helps with all of the above as well. It’s a win/win!
Let’s Make Mental Health Your Motivation To Workout
I get it. For most of us, our original reason to begin working out might be to lose weight, build muscle, or improve our endurance, but what happens to our motivation once we reach our goal or struggle to reach it?
Motivation is fickle – it comes and goes. When goals are based on improving our mental health, motivation is less of a concern, and commitment becomes easier because you can see the benefits more quickly than these common long-term goals.
Examples of New Goals
- By training 3x a week, I want to feel less anxious in my day-to-day life
- By starting a fitness routine with just two workouts a week, I want to see if my energy levels improve enough to commit to more social activities.
- By adding a new kind of exercise to my routine, I hope to feel more energy after my workday and see my memory improve.
- After I train consistently, I aim to see if I can fall asleep faster and wake up less during the night. I will track if my sleep improves over time.
How to Achieve These Goals
- Consistency - If we commit to consistency, we can overcome many hiccups of working out (getting to the gym, starting a workout, finding time on our schedule, etc). Keeping to a regular schedule saves energy and can boost your chances of success. Plus, it’ll allow you to better track the impacts of your fitness routine.
- Keep Track - I don’t mean keeping track of your PBs and mile times, although please keep doing that if it inspires you! I’m talking about keeping track of your mood before and after you finish a workout and other metrics. Journaling or making a chart of how you feel after a workout, how your sleep changes over time, or how your self-confidence and esteem improve will give you something tangible to view and reinforce your motivation to continue to train.
- Make it Part of Your Self-Care Routine - “Self-Care” has been highly commoditized over recent years, but it isn’t just about treating yourself; it’s about buckling down and doing tasks that ultimately improve your life and health. Sometimes these can be things we don’t love doing - like paying bills, folding that pile of laundry that’s been sitting in the dryer for days, or eating a healthy meal. If we make working out a part of our self-care commitment, it’s easier to keep it up - just like brushing your teeth each morning. Making it a part of your routine - making mental health one of your reasons for working out - will help build a positive relationship between your feelings towards exercise.
How to Get Out Of Your Head - Overcoming Limiting Beliefs
Sometimes our thoughts really stop us in our tracks. Whatever thoughts we tell ourselves become the story that we believe. If you struggle with making it to the gym or starting your at-home workouts, let’s look at our limiting beliefs.
Limiting beliefs are thoughts and beliefs that restrict you in some way that typically stem from childhood; it’s a judgment about yourself, no matter how untrue. Maybe you’ve told yourself your body isn’t made for the gym (which is false, by the way – if you have a body, you are an athlete).
Maybe you thought you were never the working out type or believed you wouldn’t be successful in the gym, or when you look at social media, you think fitness is just for people that already have athletic bodies – those are limiting beliefs that we picked up along our lives, usually during our formative years.
The key thing here is to remember that you are the writer and editor of your life – of the story you tell yourself. You can retrain your brain and tell it what to focus on and what thoughts to listen to.
It's essential to identify them and examine how they affect your daily life. Limiting beliefs get rooted in our conscious and subconscious – essentially, we start to identify with them, and they become who we are. We must examine them and question how true they really are.
Challenge those beliefs and develop a different, optimistic version of them. If you don’t believe that you are the person who works out, challenge that belief by starting small with an online fitness session or working out with a friend. Prove it to yourself.
If you need a strategy to help you along, Clarke & Egan (2015) found that Socratic questioning works well to challenge limiting belief. Ask yourself:
- What evidence do I have to back up this thought?
- Am I making assumptions?
- Is this thought happening because of an emotional reaction or do I have the evidence in front of me?
Exercise isn’t only for our physical body; the benefit to our mental health is boundless. Who doesn’t want to feel happier and sleep better? Challenge yourself, change those limiting beliefs, create goals around your mental health in place of, or on top of your physical goals.
Dal Banwait, aka “the happiologist,” is a certified Positive Psychology Coach passionate about helping people grow into happier, healthier versions of themselves. Her coaching empowers others to cut through their own debilitating, limiting self-beliefs, holistically connecting their “why” and “how.” Dal has a particular interest in how mind-body techniques can control thoughts and emotions, and her coaching contains powerful strategies for harnessing these in daily life. Having graduated in law, she has worked as a city professional for over 30 years and also runs Positive Psychology & Wellbeing coaching in the corporate space. Based in London, and having lived in the Far East, Dal is a writer, serial globe trotter, accidental amateur photographer, and self-confessed opacarophile (sunset obsessed)! To find out more, you can find her on Instagram @thehappiologist.