Exercise does a lot more than work out our body. It also strengthens our mental toughness, soothes our emotional pains, and in many instances can be a great boost to our social well-being. Exercise is often prescribed to treat just about anything from addiction to social anxiety. It’s an original form of “alternative medicine” that releases a rush of dopamine. The natural “happy drug” can be a cure or helper for a variety of ailments.
Here are just a few ways exercise can improve both mental and emotional health.
- It tackles those cravings. Many Americans are addicted to sugar, drugs, and alcohol, but exercise can help lessen those cravings. By releasing dopamine, exercise gives your body that natural high it’s craving. Raising the heart rate is also a well-known way to stop general hunger cravings, which can help for those with binge-eating disorder (BED) and night-eating syndrome (NES). If you’ve heard of the runner’s high, a similar phenomenon can be realized through just about any cardio activity.
- The increase in blood flow extends to all parts of the body, including the brain. Any exercise that increases the blood flow pumps more oxygenated blood throughout the body. That’s why you often come up with the best ideas while in the middle of a cardio session. An increase in blood flow also wakes you up and makes you more mentally alert. It’s the perfect fix for those who suffer from the afternoon slump.
- Working out improves your self-image. You won’t change your body after just one gym session, but working out gets you closer to your goals. It also has the power to positively shift how you see yourself. A more positive self-image leads to better emotional health, and ultimately a cycle of higher self-esteem. For those who struggle with negative self-image, it might be best to start working out in a space that’s mirror-free such as the outdoors or one of many studios that don’t provide mirrors. Sometimes, the temptation to self-judge in the mirrors might override the mental and emotional health benefits.
- Physical strength can equate to emotional and mental strength. Exercise is a common prescription for those recovering from trauma and abuse. When a person has been a victim, or sees themselves that way, it can be tough to change the image that’s burned into their brain. However, getting stronger and learning how to defend yourself (such as taking boxing lessons) links physical strength with emotional and mental strength. It’s best used in tandem with mental health therapy.
- Working out can be a social outlet. “Social” is increasingly considered one of the many aspects of health, and it’s an important one. Humans are social creatures, but in the Digital Era, it can be challenging to actually connect with each other. However, workout groups like run clubs, cycling classes, yoga studios and more provide that in-person community we all crave. It might be intimidating for those with social anxiety or who are getting back into an exercise regimen after a long time off, but not only do these groups fulfill our social needs, they also offer accountability. It’s harder to skip out on a class or group run when you know people are counting on you to be there.
Exercise is the best way to keep our body’s physically fit, but don’t discount the many emotional, mental, and social benefits tied to it. It’s also a means of finding “your people” in an era when actually connecting with each other can seem nearly impossible. If you’re drawn to a certain style of yoga and attend a studio that specializes in it, chances are you’ll meet others who share your values.
Alexa Bauer has a Master’s degree in nutrition from the University of Maryland and works as a full-time researcher at Swol Headquarters. Alexa Bauer spends her spare time blogging about cardiovascular health and nutrition. She’s specialized in weight loss.