The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

by Cory Lovera, acac West Chester Fitness Director

Attending the gym is typically associated with reaching a physical health goal like losing weight, increasing endurance, gaining muscle, or lowering blood pressure. Fewer of us may be aware, however, of the mental health benefits that accompany regular exercise.

According to the National Institute of Health, exercise reduces anxiety, depression, and negative mood and also improves self-esteem and cognitive function. When you exercise, your heart sends more blood to the brain, which then releases endorphins, thereby reducing stress. Besides this chemical reaction in our bodies, exercise provides several other mental health benefits. It can lead to feelings of accomplishment and togetherness and can simply be a distraction from day-to-day stressors in life.

Yoga is known to have many physical benefits, but at its core lies a vast amount of mental health and stress-relieving benefits. For instance, Harvard Medical School has found that yoga not only reduces stress and anxiety, but also appears to change the way our body responds to stress going forward. This reduction in stress lowers heart rate and blood pressure, as well as eases respiration. It also helps to increase the variability of one’s heart rate, essentially allowing the body to respond to stress in more versatile ways. There is also research that suggests that yogic breathing techniques, such as pausing after inhaling and exhaling, can help your immune and nervous systems as well as psychological and stress-related disorders.

Mindfulness, a mental health technique often associated with yoga, has been shown to positively affect physical health. It is defined as a state of active, open attention on the present. Mindfulness is a form of meditation in which you learn to focus your attention on the present, discard negative thoughts, and learn to open yourself to positive and self-empowering experiences. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University have found that mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety and depression and can also aid in decreasing physical pain. In this way, mindfulness is actually a mental health exercise that can positively affect your physical health. Much like other skilled exercises, an experienced instructor may be necessary to help some people get started with mindfulness.

Whether it’s lifting weights to help you relieve stress or meditation to help lower your blood pressure, it’s clear that mental and physical health are inextricably related—it’s virtually impossible to have one without the other. So let’s get out there and work on becoming our best whole selves!

To learn about the stress-reducing, fitness offerings at a club near you, visit an acac location below:

Charlottesville | Eagleview | Hunt Valley | Midlothian | Short Pump | Timonium | West Chester