Simply put, exercise increases levels of certain mood-enhancing neurotransmitters in the brain, boosting “feel-good” endorphins. Some of the positive physical side effects you may experience as a result of this include: release of tension in the muscles, more restful sleep, reduced levels of stress hormones, and increased energy. Some of the positive psychological effects you may experience as a result include: improved feeling of accomplishment and confidence from meeting a goal or challenge, positive distraction from negative daily events, improved self esteem, environmental reinforcement due to positive interactions with others (especially in a group exercise setting), and the development of positive coping skills from taking steps to actively change your lifestyle. In addition, people who participate in group exercise have higher rates of success than those who exercise alone. The group exercise environment fosters feelings of support and encouragement, which increases the likelihood of the exerciser returning. There are also kinship and accountability factors, which create an atmosphere similar to that of a support group, thus increasing chances of success. Hence, making the choice to get moving on your own will result in some or all of the physical and emotional benefits listed above; joining in some sort of group activity will give you those benefits as well as increase the likelihood that you will stick with it longer and have more fun. You can’t lose!
Often people are intimidated by the term alone: “exercise”, with visions of marathons and kick boxing classes dancing through their heads. Exercise does not have to come in such doses to offer psychological benefits. As little as 10 minutes of low-intensity walking has been shown to improve mental health. The key is to do something activity to trigger those “feel good” chemicals in the brain. Once you get started you will have more positive moods than negative moods and the desire to get moving will be more natural as opposed to feeling like an obligation or a “have to”.
Be sure to talk to your doctor before beginning any fitness program. Once you begin a program, choose something you enjoy doing as this is the best predictor for long-term commitment and success. Set reasonable goals for yourself and realize that a temporary setback is normal. Don’t give up! If you get off track, simply start over again!
It is important to remember, there is a big difference between having “the blues” or feeling down and having a major mental illness. If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness consult with your therapist or doctor regarding how an exercise program, coupled with mental health counseling and possibly medication, can help treat your illness. If you believe you may have a mental illness and are not currently being treated consult with your physician about treatment options. Although exercise has been shown to help treat mental illness it is not a substitute for other kinds of treatment, especially with a seriously mentally ill person.
-Peggi is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Outside of teaching group fitness classes she works as a Mental Health Professional and is the creator of Coach Peggi’s New You ResoLOSEtion, a program offered by The Workout Company that addresses emotional eating and other issues related to emotional well-being and fitness.