At one time or another, most of us can admit that we paid for a gym membership for way too long without ever having stepped foot into the premises. It always seems like a marvelous idea at first—we are going to trim ourselves down, get fit, and lead a healthier life. We peruse the local gyms and choose one that fits our objectives. We sign up, buy new exercise gear, pick out a new pair of Nikes, and we are off to the races. We start off eager and motivated and hit the gym a few times a week. We run on the treadmill, ride the cycling bikes, swim a few laps in the swimming lanes, and follow it up by pumping some iron in the weight room. We sign up and attend workout classes and try our hand at some zumba, yoga, or step. However, despite the best of intentions, we slowly begin to go less and less, make excuses, and then eventually stop going all together. Why does this happen, especially taking into account all of the good that exercise can do to our mental health?
Exercise is proven to have a positive effect on our mental, emotional, and psychological health and well being. Exercise alleviates stress, enhances memory, improves sleeping habits, and elevates overall mood. Exercise can boost a person’s immune system and enhance resiliency. Exercise gives people more energy and improves daily functioning, especially when taking into account all of the restful, restorative sleep that they are getting in.
Exercise has a positive impact on mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and impulse control disorders. For those struggling with depression, exercise can help by triggering changes in the brain and by encouraging calm and relaxation. In addition, going to a gym or exercising with others can help reduce a person’s isolation and increase connectedness. Exercise can help reduce symptoms of anxiety by alleviating tension through the release of physical and mental energy. Exercise can also assist people with ADHD in enhancing focus, concentration, drive, and disposition by enhancing the brain chemicals dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
Exercise makes people feel good, especially since they are doing something good for their physical and emotional health. Exercise improves a person’s self-esteem and self-confidence along with promoting positive mood changes. Exercise helps us to release endorphins, brain chemicals that trigger feelings of happiness. In addition, exercise perpetuates the growth of new brain cells, which acts as a buffer to dementia and other problems of old age.
Exercise can be a valuable coping mechanism to combat stress. It can serve as a healthy distraction to life stressors and distract from negative thinking. Exercise alleviates tension, promotes physical and mental energy, and promotes mindfulness. Mindfulness allows a person to focus on the current moment, whether it is on breathing, the melodic tones of the exercise equipment, or the feeling of perspiration running down their face. Mindfulness can provide the unique opportunity to focus on the here and now without worrying about anything else. It can assist in blocking out negative thought patterns or recurring fears and worries.
With all of these proven benefits, it is difficult to understand why more of us do not exercise on a regular basis. Perhaps it is too daunting and difficult to start a new routine. Maybe we are simply too tired or unmotivated. Whatever the reason, it is important to remember that a small amount of exercise and movement per day is better than nothing. Starting slowly can reduce intimidation and feelings of helplessness. Maybe if we heeded this advice, we could dust off our gym memberships, get some use out of them, and finally do something good for our mental health.
Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.