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Working Out For Mental Health

Feb. 22, 2022
Workout band and 2 dumbells on hardwood floors

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” 

- Confucius 

Many of us exercise for the physical benefits it offers but working out can also improve our mental health. Extensive research into physical exercise has shown that it relieves stress, reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improves focus, energy, motivation, sleep, and self-esteem. After a good workout, you just feel better, and with regular exercise, you reap these effects for the long term. 

Exercise can be a powerful tool to combat the daily stressors of college life, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed, low energy, or difficulty staying focused, organized, or motivated? Physical activity releases neurotransmitters (endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin) that help regulate mood and contribute to increases in energy, memory, and concentration. Additionally, exercise pumps more blood to the brain—which aids executive function (skills such as paying attention, organizing, planning, and prioritizing)—and enlarges the hippocampus which serves to enhance memory. Another consideration is that committing to routine exercise requires that you dedicate time to it. If working out becomes a priority, establishing a schedule accommodating it will naturally lead to better time management skills. 

Fruitful exercise requires attention to what your body is doing. You must be mindful as you work out especially if you don’t want to injure yourself.  This level of attention helps you to stay present in the moment. Through this practice, concentration is cultivated as is the mind/body connection, which may help us feel more grounded in your body and connected to the world around you. 

Struggle with insomnia? Exercise has proven to be a reliable remedy for those of us who have trouble falling asleep. The only caveat is that exercising too close to bedtime could potentially increase energy levels too much to be able to easily doze off, so it is recommended that you exercise at least one to two hours before going to bed. 

Going to a gym provides the added benefit of being around people which can be helpful to uplift your mood if you have been isolating yourself or generally feel a lack of connection to others. Doing your own individual workout alongside others or participating in a class (like yoga or cycling) are both good ways to tap into this social aspect even if you don’t directly interact with anyone. Like going to the library or a café, being around others who are doing the same thing as us can give us a sense of belonging as well as motivation to do the work you came to do. The gym is also a good place to go to with friends, not to socialize but to support each other in achieving your fitness goals. 

Of course, you don’t need to go to a gym to get a good workout. You can do plenty just by stepping outside your front door: walking, running, hiking, swimming, throwing a frisbee around, or playing a sport like basketball, soccer, tennis, volleyball, or golf. Being outdoors gives us some bonuses you don’t get from a gym: sunlight (Vitamin D), fresh air, and the sights and sounds of nature—all of which contribute to greater well-being. 

Exercise takes a multitude of forms and in order to stay motivated physical activity shouldn’t feel like a chore. Not everyone enjoys lifting weights or running. Explore different kinds of physical movement to find ones that you truly enjoy. Consider options like dancing, jump rope, climbing stairs, tai chi, qigong, and rock climbing. It’s easy to think of all of the things you don’t like about working out, but try to imagine enjoying doing something that brings us so many benefits. This is a real possibility but takes some patience and persistence on your part as we try different kinds of exercise to figure out what you find enjoyable. It is recommended to do at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week, so you have a lot of opportunities to explore and find your interests.  

Establishing an exercise routine also brings a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.  Whenever you work out make sure to take a few moments afterwards to savor that feeling and pat yourself on the back for following through.  That way the next time you start to put off going to the gym you can remind yourself of that feeling. While working out can provide a plethora of benefits, keep in mind that it is not a cure-all for mental health and it’s common for issues like depression and anxiety to affect your motivation to engage in self-care. Mental health services such as counseling are often an important first step if you are struggling to make healthy lifestyle changes. 

Exercise provides significant benefits to mental health, cognitive ability, and stress management.  It’s a way of staying connected to your body and an opportunity to connect with others.  To explore fitness options at the University of Arizona check out Campus Rec.