We often think about exercise as a way to keep ourselves physically healthy, and current Canadian guidelines recommend that we get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week. It’s a lesser-known fact that exercise is also important for our mental health.
Research has demonstrated that exercise can be a means to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety in a wide variety of populations. Those that experience the most benefit from exercise have mild to moderate cases of depression and anxiety, in which their symptoms can be managed or improved by non-pharmacological means. People from a variety of different demographics, including different age, gender, socio-economic status, and culture, can experience benefits from exercising.
Walking, running, yoga, weights, and fitness classes all have associated mental health benefits, in addition to improvements to overall health. These benefits are often described as having improved mood and mood regulation, better sleep quality, more energy and decreased stress.
In addition, these activities can increase confidence and a sense of personal control. When done in a group setting, social connectedness is an additional benefit. Spending time in nature and green spaces also has calming effects and has been shown to decrease stress and improve mood7.
The amount of benefit a person may derive from exercise depends on a variety of factors, which include:
- A person’s comfort level and confidence with performing the activity
- The attitude that they take towards exercise and their perceptions of exercise
- Their expectations
- The regularity with which they perform the exercise
- Their experiences with exercise
Amid the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has brought about uncertainty, living conditions that are unfamiliar to many, and elevated levels of stress, there have been reports of increased levels of stress within the general population.
The best experience with exercise comes about when the individual:
- Enjoys the activity
- Experiences a feeling of “control” over their exercise choices
- Sees progress with their activity related goals
- Experiences satisfaction from the activity
- Builds the activity into their routine and performs the activity regularly
- Performs the activity in a healthy way (not too strenuous, does not over-exert themself, incorporates a reasonable and attainable amount of the activity)
- Is well supported and develops a community of support
Here are some ways to get active:
- Go for a walk as your start your day or during your lunch break
- Break up your physical activity: try 15 minutes of body-weight exercises, a half hour walk at lunch, and 15 minutes of yoga before you wind down for the day
- Try an online fitness class: There are loads of free videos for all kinds of exercise through Youtube, and if you don’t find anything you like there, there are also lots of subscription services as well
- Create a routine: Habit is a powerful thing and will remove the effort of planning
- Make social time exercise time: Go for a walk with friends or family, meet a co-worker at the gym for a fitness class, or join a fitness class to socialize with a group
- Use active transportation as a way to get exercise time in: if you are within walking or biking distance of work or school, try actively commuting there one day per week, and work in more active trips as you build it into your routine. If you take a city bus, try getting off one stop earlier to add in some walking time
Most of us are juggling busy schedules and it can be difficult to find time for a fitness class or trip to the gym. But exercise doesn’t need to feel overwhelming. Even a 15 minute yoga class and a walk during your lunch break can make a difference to both your physical and your mental health.
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