How to work out for your mental health

Get physically fit while also paying mind to anxiety and depression.
Woman stretching.
Switching up your routine and taking time for mindfulness are the psychologist-approved methods to making a workout strengthen your mental health. Pexels

This post has been updated. It was originally published on September 18, 2020.

Even with gyms reopening at limited capacity, it’s still safer to exercise at home or outdoors. Check out our other Muscle Month to help you keep up your fitness, power, and health in socially distant times.

It’s no secret that your bodily health depends on your mental health and vice versa. While lack of exercise might emphasize feelings of depression and anxiety, squeezing into your workout gear can lead to lots of benefits, like a rush of happy endorphins and a distraction from your daily worries. Over time, active people tend to be more confident and social, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Hillary Cauthen, a psychologist and board member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, calls exercise a form of “consistent coping,” which keeps our minds resilient and prepared for any stress or difficulties life may throw at us. But the type of exercise also makes a difference on the individual level, Cauthen says.

“Any movement is wonderful for your natural boost,” she explains. “But when you dive a little bit deeper into where you hold tension or what you’re struggling with, you can adapt those workouts, and that increases the motivation to sustain [an active lifestyle]”.

Here are two of Cauthen’s tips on choosing a workout that best supports your mental health needs in the short and long run.

Be mindful while working out

It’s true that high-intensity workouts can give you cathartic release through a rush of positive emotions and clarity. But it’s also important to take the time to check in with your emotions, Cauthen says, and choose an activity that matches your status quo. If you’re feeling anxious, think an exercise like yoga or pilates that helps you center yourself and focus mainly on breathing. If your mind is running in circles, dipping down rabbit holes, and seeing the worst in every scenario, Cauthen says these activities can be incredibly helpful.

Refocusing your mind by being concentrating your energy on form, poses, and breathing can help rewire your brain to handle stress more effectively, she says. In fact, meditation has been shown to trigger neurotransmitters that help handle anxiety.

If you’re the type of person who only likes high-intensity fitness, try pairing the physical release with some other form of mental escape. Cauthen suggests reflective journaling after an intense run or boxing session to distill your emotions and figure out why you needed that escape in the first place. Even a meditative stretching session or walk can help you come to terms with the things you’re running from or fighting in the form of a workout.

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Mix it up to avoid mental monotony

Exercise isn’t a magic pill for your problems, so don’t think that working out every day won’t safeguard you from negative events or feelings (it’s actually pretty common for athletes to get depressed). But by switching up your workout routine, daily or weekly, you can eliminate some of the tedium.

Whether you’re a swimmer working on your stroke count or soccer player perfecting your footwork, getting out of the pool and off the field is a good way to both exercises and strengthen your mental health. Luckily, there are tons of ways to diversify the way you get in shape—and they all don’t give the same results.

For example, if your workout of choice is going for a run or grunting through a HIIT class, maybe throw in a more soothing pilates session once in a while to balance out the rush with self-reflection. Or if you’re prone to working out on your own, switch that up by flexing your social muscles at an outdoor fitness club.

If taking the leap to a totally new form of exercise stresses you out, simply add some spice to your morning jog or walk. Cauthen suggests taking out your headphones and focusing on your surroundings while you’re outside to bring yourself into a completely new mental space. Even shifting a single sense can work out your brain in a different—and good—way.

When you’re feeling down or depressed, you might find yourself slinking into a routine that keeps you feeling lonely and down. That could include exercise as well. So, Cauthen says, activating your brain to focus on how you’re feeling while steering yourself away from monotony can make your workouts more fulfilling on both the physical and mental end. After all, being fit is only one part of having a full and happy life.