You already know exercise is good for your physical health. The numerous benefits of exercise have been praised for decades now. It helps you burn calories and stay fit, protects your heart health, and improves your quality of life. But did you know that exercise has mental health benefits too? Studies have shown that exercise can be an effective tool against stress, depression, and anxiety.

While patients who battle mental health disorders often lack the motivation to practice any physical activity, an active lifestyle may help you keep your mental health conditions under control. Moreover, regular exercise can prevent mental health problems before they start.

How can exercise help with mental illness?

One of the positive effects of physical exercise is its power to enhance well-being. Exercise decreases stress hormones leading to a boost of endorphins, the chemicals that make us “feel good”. This process enhances our mood and improves energy levels. Consequently, we feel more positive and sleep better.

Physical activity can pull us out of the vicious circle of negative thoughts and emotions, often the source of our depression or anxiety, and redirect our focus towards the activity at hand. Exercise is often seen as a buffer against stress. While stress is an innate part of our life, people who work out regularly are less affected by it and find it easier to cope with everything life throws at them.

Exercise gives you a boost of self-confidence, enhances your self-esteem, and makes you feel better about yourself. Whether this happens because you lose weight, get more toned, or simply feel healthier, this benefit of exercise is all about making peace with yourself. Physical activity relieves tension and promotes mindfulness. While you focus on your yoga poses, weight training, or any other type of exercise, you concentrate entirely on your body and manage to be present, away from worries and negative thoughts that consume you. 

Additionally, exercise promotes social interaction and gives you the chance to meet new people, socialize, and escape your bubble of worries. Sometimes, a simple conversation or a smile is enough to boost our mood and feel grateful for what we have. Moreover, exercise materializes into a positive activity that helps you cope in a healthy way.

A study shows that running 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. Moreover, maintaining an exercise schedule can prevent individuals from relapsing and promotes various changes in the brain to help you feel calmer and at peace.

What exercise should I do for mental health?

There are many types of exercise that can contribute to your mental health and well-being. All physical activity promotes increased energy levels, stamina, and positivity. You should find exercises that you enjoy to make it easier for you to follow a regular schedule. It is important to remember that when we say physical activity we include everything from walking to formal exercise programs. Exercise is not only about swimming, running, or lifting weights. Daily physical activities like household chores, gardening, washing your car, or taking the stairs, all count and make a difference. Now, it would be great if you were to adopt a regular exercise routine, to add a certain structure to your day that will keep you balanced and grounded. You can try one of these types of exercise:

  • Yoga – a 2018 Science Direct study shows that yoga can help reduce stress levels, lower heart rate, increase energy, and ameliorate the symptoms of depression and anxiety;
  • Tai chi – an ancient Chinese martial art, this type of exercise, according to Science Daily, reduces stress and anxiety, contributes to the treatment of depression, and increases self-esteem;
  • Aerobic exercise – whether it is jogging, swimming, playing basketball, or cycling, regular aerobic exercise improves mental health and reduces the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and panic disorder.

Regardless of the type of exercise you choose, you can expect a prompt release of endorphins, an increased sense of self-efficacy, and lower levels of anxiety and depression. Exercise works just like an antidepressant by increasing the brain’s levels of neurotransmitters and enhancing mood.

How often should I exercise to see results?

Fortunately, you don’t have to exercise for hours to reap the beneficial effects exercise has on your well-being and mental health. Only 30 minutes of exercise a day for three to five days a week will be more than enough for you to feel more confident, happier, and less anxious. However, even smaller amounts of moderate exercise, such as 10 or 15 minutes at a time, may help. You can break your exercise schedule into several short sessions or simply plan your physical activity according to your daily routine. Choose to take the stairs, park farther away from your destination or cycle to work.

Remember that more exercise is not necessarily better for you. You don’t need to run 10k to improve your mental health and emotional well-being. The key is consistency. Regular physical activity over a long period of time beats any intense physical activity practiced sporadically.

Time Magazine explains, researchers have found a higher mental health burden for people who exercise for more than six hours a week than for those who keep it to three to five times a week. The answer is not at all difficult to understand: basically, shorter exercise sessions are easier to fit in our daily routine and promote consistency.

Nevertheless, before you begin an exercise program, discuss it with a health professional. They can help you choose the best form of exercise for you depending on your health, medication, fitness level, and lifestyle.

Whether you want to exercise for depression, anxiety, or any other mental health disorders, you should start slowly and keep experimenting until you find the perfect type of exercise for you. Our bodies are different and we should respect their limits. Make a commitment to your exercise plan and never overdo it. The role of exercise is to make you healthier and happier. However, if you start seeing it as a burden or task, it loses its therapeutic effects and just adds to your anxieties.

Yoga

What is Mindful Self-Compassion?

Why do so many people stumble or struggle with being kind to themselves? Why is it often easier to be kind to others and not to ourselves? A common fear around self-compassion is that it’s merely a form of self-pity.

Self-pity comes from a perspective of “poor me”, feeling sorry for yourself. Compassion involves recognizing the difficulty of the situation and research shows that those who practice it, focus on their situation or circumstances less overall. For this reason, they usually have better overall mental health than those that do not practice self-compassion.

Mindful self-compassion is the combination of two critical practices that should be applied in daily life — Mindfulness and self-compassion.

What is mindfulness?

Let’s start with the term mindfulness. You’ve probably heard about mindfulness, maybe even seen some books, or heard a podcast on the subject. Mindfulness requires that you bring your attention to the present moment. Being fully conscious and aware of all that is happening right now. This means letting go of those issues you have to deal with at work tomorrow, the bills at the end of the month, the dinner you have to cook for your family, etc. Release everything that is not of the present moment.

Through mindfulness, you replace all those thoughts keeping your mind busy, with all the feelings and sensations you are experiencing right now. Feel each breath as it enters and leaves your body, listen carefully to the sounds around you, focus on all the signals your body is sending you from head to toe. Thoughts from the past or the future may enter, but don’t hang onto them. Let them go with your breath and return to silence, simply experiencing all the sensations within and around you.

Don’t be discouraged, it takes practice to hone the skills of mindfulness. Initially, you may get only a few seconds before thoughts about the past or the future rush back in. Treat yourself with kindness, don’t engage with them, don’t deny them, let them be, and patiently let them go. Welcome to the conscious present moment.

Girl with her eyes closed and smiling

What is self-compassion?

The second piece to mindful self-compassion begins with understanding what is compassion. Imagine that your best friend, or your child, came to you because they had a rough day. Maybe teachers or friends had some harsh criticism for them and they are experiencing some difficult or challenging emotions related to this.

In this situation, most people would show their best friend or their child some degree of compassion. This would entail acknowledging their painful emotions and responding with warmth, caring, and kindness. We’ve all been on the other side of this situation as well, it might have been a parent, a friend, or a skilled teacher, but we’ve all been shown compassion at some point in our lives.

I can already hear the chorus of “this is obvious” and that’s good. But let me ask you, when was the last time you extended that same warmth, caring, and kindness to yourself?

That is precisely what self-compassion is. When faced with our own personal shortcomings and struggles, most people are quick to judge, condemn, and punish themselves. Even now, some of you are defending that behavior. I can hear you, “my struggles occur because I made a mistake”, “I have high standards”, “there’s no excuse for not achieving my goals”, etc.
The people that treat us that way in our personal lives, we usually don’t keep around for very long. So we should make it our goal to practice self-compassion and focus on achieving that goal so that we can be kinder to ourselves.

The 3 Elements of Self-Compassion

Self-Kindness vs Self-Judgement

Compassion emphasizes being kind to yourself. The world is a difficult place, and it’s not always possible to be or achieve what you want. It’s great to pursue ambitious goals. The key is when we fall short, to recognize the difficulties and our imperfection, to realize that a shortcoming does not make us inadequate or incomplete. Judging ourselves for the failure creates suffering that is expressed as stress, frustration, and self-criticism.

Common Humanity vs Isolation

In the face of our defeats, many have a tendency to feel like they are the only ones who have failed. That they alone are damaged in some way and that’s the reason for the failure. The truth is the opposite. All humans are imperfect, fragile, and have many shortcomings. It’s not something to be ashamed of or a reason to judge yourself. Those experiences, those areas for improvement, those failures are shared by all of humanity, not just you.

Mindfulness vs Over-Identification

The last piece is the mindfulness element. This requires that we recognize our fears and emotions when faced with our struggles and hold our attention on keeping them in perspective. Approach the situation and your feelings with openness and clarity. Be fully present in your emotions without suppressing them or amplifying them. This takes focus and practice, but it’s something that once you learn will be beneficial in your daily life.

Self-Compassion Training Exercises

Compassion is like a muscle, the more you practice it the more it develops. So to help you get started on your compassion journey, below are 3 exercises you can do to start leveling up your self-compassion skills.

How would you treat a friend?

As mentioned earlier, we’re usually much better at showing compassion to others than we are to ourselves. So reframe your situation and imagine how you would treat a friend experiencing what you are going through. What would you tell them? How is it different than what you have been telling yourself? Should it be different?

Changing your critical self-talk

The way we talk to ourselves has a profound effect on all areas of our life. Identifying negative self-talk and replacing it with more positive communication is the foundation for improving the way you relate to yourself. This one takes a lot of practice, stick with it.

Keep a self-compassion journal

For some, writing down your feelings can help you process them. Doing it from the perspective of compassion can enhance your mental well-being. Sometimes reviewing our thoughts later when we have a cooler head can reveal issues in the way we reason or communicate with ourselves.

Woman looking at herself in the mirror

Want to Learn More?

Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) was developed by Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff. They have written books on the subject and have a mindful self-compassion program and workshops. As authors and teachers, they have developed and taught a variety of self-compassion practices. They have videos, courses, workbooks, compassion training programs, and are a tremendous resource for all things related to compassion.