Life in lock-down isn’t easy. Not being able to see our loved ones, crowded homes and apartments, the inability to work, combined with the uncertainty of the crisis, means many of us are struggling with stress and anxiety. With doctors already overloaded with patients, it can feel like you’re alone in your suffering. But it is possible to control and reduce these symptoms while at home— through exercise. Read on to find out how exercise improves mental health, especially during the lock-down.
Exercise produces feel-good chemicals in your body
Let’s start with the science. One of the primary reasons that exercise is so positive for mental health is because it releases mood-elevating hormones in the body. These “feel-good” hormones include:
These hormones serve as neurotransmitters, sending messages to the nervous system to regulate mood and generally enhance your sense of well-being.
Studies suggest that when these neurotransmitters are released after exercise, an individual will feel happy, positive, and generally energized. Beyond that, these neurotransmitters can also help reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, including increased heart rate, and negative and intrusive thoughts, and so on.
Creates a Mind-Body Connection
Mindfulness used to be seen as something for spiritual types, akin to meditation or reiki. But today, mindfulness is a recognized mental health treatment in its own right. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the present moment, excluding any worries or concerns about the past or future. It involves concentrating on your breathing, feeling it flow in and out of your lungs. This serves as the anchor upon which sufferers of mental health issues (especially anxiety) can quell their negative inner thoughts.
So how does exercise figure into this? Well, exercise places your body into a certain physical state. Your pulse quickens, your breathing becomes heavier, and your body moves in a repeated motion. Consequently, it provides the perfect space upon which you can focus only upon your breathing, the rise of your chest, and the movement of your arms and legs as you swim, cycle, or run.
Research suggests that exercise promotes mindfulness by relaxing the body in a physiological sense too. By lowering blood pressure through exercise, one can better achieve a mindful state.
Mindfulness improves over time. Practice it frequently and regularly, and you will gradually find it easier to achieve a state of calm while exercising.
Exercise improves mental health by relieving the physical symptoms of mental health issues
Any sufferer of depression, anxiety, OCD, or other mental health issues will tell you that the symptoms of these conditions don’t just exist in your head — they manifest in physical ways too. Sufferers of anxiety, for instance, often experience a pounding heart, rapid breathing, or trembling upon certain triggers. In the same vein, people with depression may regularly feel fatigued, have headaches, or even stomach pain.
But studies show that exercise, as a physical activity, counteracts these physical symptoms. A vigorous cardiovascular activity increases the flow of blood to your muscles, oxygenating them, and relieving tension.
Exercise also helps reduce blood pressure too. Blood pressure increases during stressful or anxious situations, so a short jog or cycle helps to gradually lower your blood pressure to a healthy level.
Exercise brings routine and stability into your day
For many sufferers of mental health, a lack of routine can compound the symptoms of their condition. This is especially true during lock-down. Many of us find ourselves either working from home or furloughed with our usual routines thoroughly disrupted. But by setting strict times to exercise every day and sticking to them, you add a framework to the chaos of your day. Even outside of quarantine, introducing an exercise routine into your life gives shape to your day. It gives you structure and stability, something to hold onto even when you’re at your lowest ebb.
This is a strategy employed in the real world by prisoners too. Solitary confinement is often used to break people’s will, especially if they’ve been taken hostage. But by adding a routine to their time in confinement — exercise is often the only activity available to them — they create a sense of independence on their own terms.
Of course, this is an extreme example. But it highlights how a routine of exercise can empower you and give you a sense of confidence and control at a time when you need it most.
Exercise fosters positive self-esteem
Many individuals with anxiety also suffer from low self-esteem as a result of their condition. Anxiety might prevent someone from integrating socially or making new friends, and they might blame themselves as a result. Exercise helps combat this by helping nurture positive self-esteem in a physical way, and research confirms this.
Along with clean eating, healthy habits, embracing one’s self, and generally treating yourself well, exercise forms the foundation of self-love. Firstly, by releasing the aforementioned feel-good hormones, exercise creates an environment in the body that creates a positive self-image in a physical sense. Alongside this, tracking one’s exercise progress over time also gives the sufferer a sense of achievement. Seeing and feeling the physical improvements in your body has the same effect. Self-esteem improves as a result.
Exercise does more than keep your body fit and healthy. It’s also a powerful method of improving your mental health and helping you cope with stressful situations. Be inspired by the points above and introduce exercise in your day to keep your head above water during these stressful times.