Exercises to Boost Your Mental Health

Mental health refers to emotional, cognitive and behavioural wellbeing. In recent years, mental health has become as important as physical health, and for good reason. Mental disorders can affect the way people feel, think and behave. It can affect your daily life, your physical health and your relationships with others.

Different factors can influence your mental wellbeing. Loneliness, childhood traumas, long-term stress, bullying, unemployment, insomnia and loss of a loved one are just some of the aspects that can cause mental disorders.

Even though many elements can cause a decline in your mental health, there are also many ways to improve it.

Talking about how you’re feeling to a loved one or a professional can help take a weight off your chest. Keeping in touch with friends and family can also improve your mental wellbeing as it reduces feelings of loneliness and depression.  Another solution is to do something that you like or/and you’re good at, such as reading, gardening, listening to music or playing an instrument.  Eating well can also help you feel better as you’re giving your brain the nutrients and chemicals it needs to work in a balanced way. Last but not least, exercising and staying active is crucial to improving your mental wellbeing.

Today, we’ll look at 6 aerobic exercises that have been proven to reduce depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

Yoga

In the past decades, yoga has become increasingly popular in the western world, but it’s far from a new form of exercise. Yoga originated around 5000 years ago in India. Its name derives from ‘Yuj’, which means to yolk, or to unite. It is believed that this practice helps join individuals with a universal consciousness. Thus, connecting the mind with the body as well as the practitioner with the natural world.

For many people in western countries, the main goal of this exercise is to improve mental and physical health by paying particular attention to one’s flexibility, strength and breathing.

Indeed, these benefits have prompted over 300 million people, of all genders, to practice Yoga; and this number is increasing every year.

You have a choice between different types of yoga such as Hatha, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Bikram, Kundalini and many more, depending on the form of exercise you’re looking for. Some of these are more athletic and demanding, whilst others are more slow-paced.

Yoga can be practiced by yourself or with a group; outside or inside. Many yogis participate in yoga classes with the guidance of an instructor and other fellow students. This is especially helpful if you’re a beginner and want to learn how to do every movement properly. However, other yogis prefer to stay at home and practice it through apps or guided videos.

Even the yoga market has skyrocketed. Today, the global yoga market is worth more than $130bn, and it is estimated that it will rise to $215bn by 2025. Nowadays, yoga clothing, accessories and equipment are bought by many, associating their shopping needs with their new lifestyle. But Yoga is not a passing trend. As mentioned, it’s an exercise that has been around for thousands of years, and the integration into the western world will continue to develop. Once you get into Yoga, there’s no going back.

How can Yoga improve your mental health?

Yoga is seen as a mind-body medicine that helps reduce stress levels. Did you know that many diseases are caused or influenced by stress, such as cancer and heart disease? Calming down your body, mind, and breathing can help you relax, which counteracts the stress that you may be experiencing.

With this meditative exercise, you have to concentrate on every pose, getting your body in the right position. You also have to consider whether the posture requires you to inhale or exhale, therefore, concentrating on your breathing patterns. By focusing on the present moment through these poses, your mind naturally relaxes.

Yoga is also beneficial for people with anxiety and depression. This physical and mental exercise can reduce anxiety levels as you’re focusing on performing each pose correctly. The same goes for depression. By connecting with your individual self, yoga helps you take care of your mind and body, making you feel happier and healthier. Based on several studies, this practice even releases serotonin, a happiness chemical that can further help reduce depressive symptoms.

Yoga is an exercise anyone can do, no matter if you’re a beginner or a trained instructor. It’s not about doing the poses perfectly, especially at the beginning, but rather focusing on your breathing, flow of movements and concentration.

This exercise also helps to calm your nervous system. It goes from a fight or flight mode where it produces more stress hormones to a parasympathetic nervous system. Physical benefits of deep breathing include:

  • Regulates digestion
  • Conserves energy
  • Lowers blood pressure

Mentally, you’ll be more relaxed as your body goes back to everyday operations rather than stressful situations.

Finally, by understanding your body and what it needs, yoga can help build self-trust. Focusing on your body and movements makes you gain a less judgemental opinion about yourself. Yoga allows you to feel good, and creates deeper roots with your sense of self, becoming more confident. It also pushes you to take care of your well-being, knowing that you can support your body by following a healthy lifestyle. You start thinking I’m worth it, becoming more courageous and ready to step up for what you believe. It’s the relationship with yourself that matters. If you won’t care of yourself, then who will?

Boxing 

Historians believe boxing originated in Egypt around 3000 BC and, in the 7th century BC, this sport was integrated into the Greek Olympic games. Today, professional boxers are not the only ones who train and practice this sport. Indeed, many people have incorporated boxing into their exercise regime. Not only does boxing improve balance and posture, boost endurance, and strengthen the upper body, but it also has many mental health benefits.

Mental health benefits of Boxing

Boxing helps relieve stress, but differently from yoga. You are still fully focusing on the task, staying in the present moment. However, as opposed to yoga, which is seen as a more soothing exercise, with boxing you have to make sure you are using your power and learnt techniques when hitting the heavy bag. It releases all your anger, insecurities and negative thoughts onto the bag. When you’ve finished the session, you immediately feel calmer and lighter, knowing you have done something to relieve your stress levels.

Boxing makes you feel strong, giving you a sense of empowerment every time you punch the bag or mits. It gets you into a fighting spirit, building the confidence you need to confront aspects of your life that negatively affect your mental health. It can also make you feel less stressed and anxious, as your shift in mindset means that you can deal with anything, no matter what life throws at you.

It can be hard to concentrate when you have so much on your mind, but practice makes perfect. Probably, in the beginning, your mind might wander away. However, after some classes, you’ll learn about different techniques and focus more on the task at hand, improving concentration and being in the present moment.

Boxing can also make you feel amazing as this exercise increases the production of endorphins in your brain. These neurochemicals relieve pain and stress and produce a sense of euphoria. If boxing sounds like something you might enjoy, why not give it a go!

Swimming 

It is believed that the sport of swimming originated in Egypt in 2500 BC, and was later introduced in the Greek and Roman civilizations as training exercises and even taught to young males in school. In the early 1800s, swimming became a recreational activity in England, and in 1896, it turned into an Olympic sport.

In what ways can swimming improve your mental wellbeing? 

Swimming is a fantastic way of switching off from your day to day life. With swimming, you have to keep control of your whole body, from your head to your feet, and move them in the specific style that you want to replicate. Not only that, but you also have to focus on your breathing. Breathing patterns are crucial when swimming, knowing when to inhale and exhale. By focusing on all these mentioned aspects, you have no choice but to pay close attention to the task, releasing any tension built up throughout the day. Based on one study, 74% of respondents said swimming helps release physical tension and stress.

“Swimming for just 30 minutes, three days a week has been shown to lower stress levels, improve sleep patterns, and lower anxiety and depression.” – Swimming.org

As with other sports, swimming releases neurochemicals such as endorphins, including serotonin. It is seen that releasing these hormones regularly, as a result of exercising frequently, can improve your mental wellbeing and increase your levels of joy and positivity.

These endorphins not only make you feel happier but also more relaxed. Swimming is seen as a meditative experience, allowing you to switch off from everything. Similar to yoga, swimming follows a set of rhythmic movements that you need to practice, which leaves little space to think on anything else.

Lastly, there is no scientific evidence yet, but it is believed that the colour blue has a soothing effect upon the mind, just like the sky and sea on a beautiful day. Looking at colour symbolism, blue represents trust, calm and relaxation. It’s a colour we see every day in nature, no matter where we are. This theory may suggest why we feel happy and comforted when we are around this colour, unknowingly improving our wellbeing.

Cycling 

Cycling is a sport that experienced a massive boost in popularity during lockdown. It is seen as a healthy means of transportation as well as exercise, whether you’re heading to work, meeting up with a friend or exploring your surrounding area. You can do it alone, being free to go wherever you please or enjoy it with a group. You can go for a countryside ride, explore a city or even indoors at a gym or by joining a spinning class. Nowadays you don’t even have to have your own bike. In a lot of cities, you can rent a bicycle and pay depending on the number of hours you’re using it.

Cycle your way to mental wellness 

As with other sports, cycling produces endorphins that go to your brain. This mechanism occurs to help prevent feeling too much pain. But, it’s also a crucial contributor in making you feel less anxious and stressed. Performing this exercise also reduces the amount of cortisol (known as the stress hormone) in your system, decreasing your chances of having certain illnesses and allowing your body to work as intended.

Indeed, the University of Toronto found out that cycling not only helps treat depression but can also prevent it by 19%.

Socializing as well as exercising can improve your mental health. Cycling with friends or a group of people that share the same interest can be extremely beneficial. Not only are you improving your mental and physical well being through this exercise, but you’re also surrounded by like-minded people who share the same passion. Feeling part of something bigger has shown to be beneficial to your mental health, reducing stress and anxiety whilst getting an overall sense of joy and belonging.

Finally, unlike other sports, cycling is a mode of transportation. It can be incredibly beneficial for your mental health to get out of the house and travel somewhere you wouldn’t normally go.

Running 

As with cycling, running is a recreational exercise anyone can enjoy. You can do it by yourself or with friends; you can do it outdoors or on a treadmill at the gym. There’s also no pressure. You can decide to go slow or fast depending on your body’s stamina and resistance. Also, you can choose to run for 15 minutes or for over an hour. Put simply, running can easily be integrated into your daily routine.

Having weekly runs can have numerous benefits. It improves muscle strength, cardiovascular health and maintains a healthy body. But not only. This exercise can also positively affect your mental health.

Indeed, during the pandemic, many people have taken up running to improve their mental and physical well being. You might have seen more people around your city jogging, by themselves or in groups, whether it’s in the morning before work or in the evening.

Based on one ASICS study, they found that 36% of runners are more active now compared to before covid-19. Also, 73% of respondents said that they will maintain this exercise even after the pandemic ends.

It makes sense. People have noticed how running is positively affecting their health and wellbeing.

Let’s go a bit more into detail on why you should try this sport to benefit your mental health.

The mental health benefits of Running 

It has been shown that running can have the same effect as the medication used to cure anxiety and depression. After a run, your body releases endocannabinoids, a biochemical that reduces stress and makes you feel calm and relaxed. By decreasing your stress levels, you will ultimately boost your mood, feeling happier and less anxious.

Running can also help improve your sleep, even those with insomnia. Indeed, when running in the afternoon, your body temperature increases and, as many call it, you experience a ‘running high’. After some time, your body goes back to its natural state, signalling that it is ready to rest. Thus, running can have the same effect as a sleeping pill. Having a good sleeping pattern can help increase your mental health as you feel more rested and ready for the day ahead.

You might feel unmotivated to go running, making up excuses and postponing to another time. But after giving yourself a little push and committing to the exercise, it will make you feel amazing! Not only do you feel healthier and more relaxed, but even more energized. You break that ‘couch potato’ cycle and are ready to take on the world. You have more energy and focus, increasing your productivity levels.

Running might just be what you need to make the most of every day, achieving a sense of accomplishment and, in turn, improving your mental wellbeing.

Dancing 

You can say dancing is as old as time. It is believed to have originated, as the earliest findings suggest, in India 9000 years ago and later in Egypt 5300 years ago. However, the first proper records show that dancing was common in ancient China, Greece and India.

Today there are so many dance styles to choose from depending on what you’re most interested in. You can pick a Ballroom dance such as waltz, tango, cha-cha, rumba or jive. Alternatively, you can go for Professional performance dances like ballet or modern dance, or even have a go at a Latin dance such as salsa, flamenco, or lambada. Whether you prefer something slow or more upbeat, dancing is a fantastic exercise to improve your mental health.

Dance your mental pain away

Swedish researchers found that dancing can positively affect your mental wellbeing and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. Indeed, they studied 100 teenage girls, where half of them were enrolled in weekly dance classes. Those who took this weekly exercise said they were experiencing a boost in their mood and feeling less stressed. However, this is not limited to teenagers. In the USA, researchers looked at elderly people to see if dancing had a positive effect on their mental health. The results were undeniable, not only did they see a vast improvement in the elderly dancers’ mobility and physical movement, but they became more talkative and experienced a boost in positivity.

Dancing is a meditative experience. Like with yoga, dancing makes you focus on each movement and overall choreography, the different rhythms and even the music. It leaves no time or energy to think about problems you may be having or negative feelings you may be experiencing. You have to be in the moment and focus on the flow, making you feel more relaxed and energized after the session. Dance is also an expressive exercise, ideal to escape and let loose from your everyday life. You can be your true self without feeling you have to act or behave in a certain way.

Self-expression is extremely important when feeling stressed. Dancing gives you the chance to release all your bottled up emotions and thoughts through movement. Just like with boxing, you are releasing whatever has been building up inside you. Also, if it’s difficult to verbalize what you’re feeling or experiencing, you can always do it through dance, letting your movements talk on your behalf.

Take Care of Your Mental Health 

Mental health is as important as your physical wellbeing. If you can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there or that you shouldn’t do anything about it.

Whether you prefer to practice a soothing exercise such as yoga, or a more athletic sport like boxing (or even something in between), moving your body is one of the best things you can do to improve your mental wellbeing.

If you’re ready for a change and tired of how you’ve been feeling recently, getting into a weekly exercise routine could be just what you’re looking for to improve your mood and silence those negative thoughts that take control of your day to day life.

It’s easy to stay at home and leave exercising until the next day and even easier to do the same the day after that. But, as we’ve learnt, exercising is extremely beneficial both inside and out, and even if it’s hard at first, it’ll be worth it in the long run.

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