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  • Writer's pictureDena Lampert

How Physical Fitness Affects Mental Health

In last month’s blog post, we shared our perspective on what emotional fitness is, how we can work on it, and the similarities between emotional fitness and physical fitness. We discussed how we can build our emotional flexibility, strength, and endurance in similar ways to how we work on our physical flexibility, strength, and endurance. In this month’s blog, we’re going to discuss the benefits of maintaining good physical fitness and how something seemingly so simple can have such a positive impact on our mood and mental health.

The topic of exercise and physical fitness can be triggering for some. We all have our own experiences with exercise, and unfortunately, lots of these experiences are negative, especially for teenagers and young adults. When I started working out regularly as a teenager, it was in an effort to solely lose weight. And with that goal in mind, exercise became a very negative activity for me as it mostly triggered negative thoughts about my body and was ultimately ineffective in achieving weight loss. The negative thoughts about my body compelled me to exercise more, but the lack of weight loss I experienced led to increased negative thoughts about my body, and the cycle continued.

However, our relationship with exercise and physical fitness should be more than about just losing weight or changing the way we look. After many years of trying to restructure the way I think about exercise, now, my only goal with exercise is to maintain a good mood. And with this alternative goal in mind, I have been much more successful. Not only is my mood more stable, but it is so much easier to maintain a consistent and manageable workout schedule. I won’t beat myself up if I skip a workout, and I always feel great after every workout. Those negative thoughts about my body have shifted to much more positive ones with just a slight restructuring in my thinking.

Reframing your thoughts

Reframing the way you think about something in a new positive way means that not only will your thought process change, but your emotions and behavior will too. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) shows us that if we change one part of the triangle (thoughts, behaviors, or emotions), this is enough for the others to follow and change too. When it comes to exercise and maintaining our physical fitness, often changing our thought process is the best part of the triangle to start with. Aiming to change our behaviors might help in the short term – you might try to go for a walk 3 times per week - but if you have a negative cognitive relationship with exercise, this change might not last long-term.

For lots of people, the goal of exercising and being physically fit is to lose weight. However, so many factors can influence our weight, from stress levels to water retention, to how much sleep we get. And therefore using weight loss as a goal for exercise is difficult to measure and is ultimately unreliable. Some alternative goals for exercise include maintaining a good mood, improving your mood, getting into a clearer state of mind, getting stronger, or feeling healthier. Truly reframing the way you think about exercise can significantly improve your experience and relationship with exercising, and often can lead to better results.

The benefits of being physically active

The benefits of exercising and maintaining a good level of physical fitness are numerous. According to the CDC, being active can “improve your brain health, help manage weight, reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve your ability to do everyday activities.”

Exercising and keeping active increases blood flow to the brain which can help us think more clearly and objectively. Exercise can also help reduce stress as it has been shown to decrease the number of stress receptors in the brain which therefore minimizes the effect of stress hormones on the brain, which decreases the impact of stressful experiences. In addition, studies have shown that exercise promotes the production of new brain cells, which are essential in improving cognitive function and reducing stress.

Research has also shown that when you’re active, a number of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin get released into your brain. This increase in neurotransmitters is one reason why exercise can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Due to all of the brain changes that occur as a result of exercising, being physically active can have a drastically positive effect on mental health. And being active for only 30 minutes per day can improve your mood significantly. It can help you sleep better, improve your sense of control and self-esteem, distract you from negative thought spirals, offer you an opportunity to socialize, increase your energy levels, and be an outlet for your frustrations.

Remember, when we say “being active” we don’t mean that you have to be running a marathon or lifting heavy weights. Walking your dog, doing some gardening, or taking a stroll all count as exercising.

So if you’re struggling with low mood or anxiety, try incorporating more activity into your life. And if you’re already active but have a difficult relationship with exercise, then try reframing your thoughts. Set a new goal that is more specific and measurable, and that will help you to achieve the results you want in a more positive way.

If you need some extra support with working on your mental fitness, reach out and one of our qualified therapists will be happy to help.


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