The mental health benefits of fitness

One of the things I’m learning in embracing fitness is that it is always a process of learning and that this learning isn’t always about fitness.

I’ve always known about the mood lifting benefits of physical activity. I often liken it to Dorothy Parker’s bon mot about writing: “I don’t like to write; I like to have written.”

For me, it’s more a case of “I don’t like to exercise; I like to have exercised.”

It‘s the after effects of physical effort, the sense of well being, and the knowledge I have accomplished something that brings me the most joy. When I am in the midst of the workout, my main goals are to perform well, execute the program as directed, and finish. I might not always be upright and smiling as running guru John Stanton recommends, but I am usually one or the other.

And I am always happy because there is always something in the workout that pleases me. Maybe it’s feeling the growing strength in my weak knee or unstable hip; maybe it’s the thrill of trying a new exercise (hello there pull-up!).

The fact is, I start most of my workouts in a happy frame of mind. I’m glad to be in the gym, even if I am feeling slow, especially in the winter when it is cold and my joints feel sticky.

Last fall though, I went through a period of significant stress. I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t keeping to my usual meal plans, and quite frankly, I wasn’t as chill as I would have liked. After a spectacularly challenging week, I wrote my trainer and asked her to give me a hard workout, nothing held back.

And she did. Looking back, I can’t remember what was in the program; I only remember my determination to work as hard as I could, and as strongly as I could.

By the end of it, I wasimg_3176 spent, totally wrung out and I felt hollow, like a husk. Yet I also felt calm, light, and balanced, as if the effort of pushing myself unbelievably hard, had released me from the anchor of stress that was weighing me down mentally.

In an earlier post, I wrote about my discovery of anger as a means to fuel the power in a challenging lift or squat. And while I wouldn’t recommend intentionally subjecting yourself to a stressful situation to see how you perform in a hard workout, I think it is worth evaluating how you can use a workout to alleviate stress.

The Saskatoon Regional Health Authority has produced a dandy leaflet looking at how you can manage grief and loss with physical activity.

The brochure looks at how exercise affects your emotions and the benefits it brings to your body and mind. For example, it says “when we are physically active, our bodies release endorphins which help to reduce symptoms of grief, depression, anxiety and stress.”

Those endorphins help us get to our happy place by stabilizing our moods as I mentioned earlier. But exercise also helps us regulate the release of neurotransmitters, those nifty brain chemicals that can calm us or motivate us, depending on what we are experiencing.

So while stress can make us swing like a pendulum, exercise can bring us to a place where we can find emotional and physical balance. Some people find workouts useful in how they help them figure out solutions to life or work problems. Others like how they help wipe away fear, anxiety, grief, and stress.

For me, I like not having to worry about anything except the completion of the exercise. It actually gives me some control, in a time when stress is making me feel as if I have none. While I will continue to focus on building strength and developing my functional fitness levels with training, I now know that my workouts are also contributing to my emotional and mental well being by reducing the negative effects of stress on my physical self.

— Martha is a writer in St. John’s who has found happiness in lifting things up and putting them down again.

3 thoughts on “The mental health benefits of fitness

  1. Totally agree! I have been a runner for many years and my husband can look at me and say ‘you need a run, don’t you?’ Yeh…it makes such a big difference in so many aspects of our lives.

    1. As women have been told so often to stuff their feelings, to push through it, to get over it, that taking time to process those emotions, whether through writing or working out/going for a run, really matters. It is really helpful too when those around you recognize the value movement in whatever form brings to your mental well being. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Great post! My gym trips are the cornerstone of my day. When I’m done, I can think and focus much better. Stuff that stressed me out before seems more manageable. It’s a nice way to reset a so-so day.

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