We know that exercise is important to stay in shape, improve flexibility, and reduce your risk of health conditions, but movement doesn’t just benefit our physical health. Regular exercise can boost mental health by reducing stress, improving sleep quality, and even lessening symptoms of common conditions. For example, those who are physically active are 30% less likely to become depressed. And when you consider how the current pandemic has affected us mentally, exercise is one way of ensuring our brains are kept in tip-top condition despite any feelings of loneliness, grief, and uncertainty. So, if you want a workout to increase your overall wellbeing without needing a gym membership, try one of these five exercises to improve your mental health.
Dancing to your favourite songs can do wonders for your mood. After all, have you ever seen someone look unhappy while dancing? Whether you enjoy contemporary, tap, or even ballet, it’s a definite feel-good activity. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that dancing has the biggest impact on our cognitive abilities, while also proven to reduce stress, increase serotonin levels, and create a stronger sense of wellbeing.
Take the ballet style barre, for instance, which includes dance-inspired ballet techniques mixing strength training with cardio and yoga positions. It’s not only beneficial for your physical health but your mental wellbeing too. Dancers often experience higher self-esteem and confidence levels as a result. And as Kate Grove, master trainer at The Bar Method notes, her students feel “not only physically stronger but mentally stronger as well since the exercises challenge mental stamina and will”. By getting involved with a barre workout regime, like from trained ballerina Naturally Sassy’s app, for instance, you’ll see improvements to your “posture, balance, flexibility and strength”, without the need for any previous dance experience. Her workouts can be done anywhere at any time via streaming and require no equipment, making them ideal for beginners.
Walking is the easiest exercise and it costs you absolutely nothing. It may not seem like an effective form of exercise at face value, but it can indeed benefit your mental health. For instance, a study by Cornell University found that a short ten-minute walk in a natural setting can improve mood and focus, while reducing stress levels. Low intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking, has been proven to boost creative thinking, according to a 2014 Stanford study, with participants that walk experiencing higher levels of creativity compared to those sitting. Perhaps the best thing about walking is that it doesn’t need to be strenuous, unlike other forms of cardio. Even a slow, short walk will improve how you’re feeling emotionally. Try walking to your local park or another place of interest and take in your surroundings. The fresh air will help clear your mind and change your perspective.
3. HIIT workouts
HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is a form of cardio involving short bursts of different exercises with periods of rest in between. HIIT benefits include improved cardiovascular health, high calorie burn, and better blood flow. And when it comes to mental health, a study in the Journal of Neuroscience discovered that short bursts of vigorous exercise increases the levels of the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA, which are responsible for the chemical messaging inside your brain. Depressive disorders are commonly linked with low levels. Another study by the University of Texas revealed HIIT can regulate brain function by stimulating a protein called BDNF which also improves mood. Most gyms offer HIIT classes, and workouts are also accessible through fitness apps and YouTube.
Yoga is commonly suggested to those suffering with poor mental health, which comes as no surprise when you consider how good it is for the mind. It’s soothing, reduces stress, improves sleep, and allows you to connect to your body on a deeper level. This is because the body influences the mind, and we change our chemistry during a yoga session, opening up areas where we often hold tension and encouraging positive energy to flow again. As you need to focus on your breathing techniques while doing yoga, this helps to dissipate any negative thoughts and calm you. This type of exercise also reduces how much cortisol your body releases, which decreases stress and lessens symptoms of anxiety and depression.
“Through the practice we connect with our breath, which is an incredible tool for supporting us physically, emotionally, and energetically,” yoga teacher Annie Clark tells Stylist, explaining that it works to “release tension and trauma from the body, as well as develop a deeper connection to our initiation and understand ourselves more fully”.
According to Rachel Boyd from mental health charity Mind, running is “as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression”. As well as helping you sleep better, improve mood, reduce symptoms of depression, and build self-esteem, you’ll also benefit from a boost of vitamin D if you’re running on a sunny day. Your body is able to generate this from sunlight, and optimal vitamin D levels lessen the likelihood of you experiencing depression. This is due to poor nutrient levels playing a role in depression and other mental health disorders. Consistent running actually changes your brain structure, increasing levels of serotonin and norepinephrine which help to regulate mood and boost activity. Plus, you’ve probably heard the term ‘runner’s high’ before, which refers to the positive endorphins released while you run, making you feel elated after working out.