Exactly How To Exercise To Improve Your Mental Health

mbg Contributor By Leigh Weingus
mbg Contributor
Leigh Weingus is a New York City based freelance journalist writing about health, wellness, feminism, entertainment, personal finance, and more. She received her bachelor’s in English and Communication from the University of California, Davis.

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While there's no question that exercise plays a part in the healthy weight puzzle, the recent rhetoric around the benefits of exercise is less about weight loss and much more about the astounding role it plays in mental health.

A recent Fidelity survey found that after paying off debt, the No. 1 thing that increases happiness is regular exercise, ranking above getting a promotion and getting married. Additionally, a recent study out of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan asked 295 mental health patients if they wanted to start exercising more, and if they thought exercise improved their mental health.

Eighty-five percent said they wanted to exercise more, and 80 percent believed exercise helped improve their mood. "Mental health providers such as psychiatrists and therapists may not have the necessary training to prescribe physical activity as part of their mental health practice," said study author Carol Janney. "But by teaming up with certified personal trainers or other exercise programs, it may help them prescribe or offer more recommendations for physical activity in the clinic setting."

So, how can you maximize the obvious mental health benefit of exercise if you're in a rut? Here are two science-backed ideas:

1. Get outside.

According to neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, exercise creates a perfect cocktail of positive chemicals in our brains. "Exercise helps us emerge from a rut by many mechanisms including the release of endorphins and neurotransmitters, the detoxification of substances that may be promoting inflammation and making us feel sluggish and despondent, and the reminder that our bodies and minds are powerful and strong, which can induce a sense of resiliency," she says.

And if you're going through a particularly difficult time, exercise outside. "The best form of exercise for traumatic and negative life events is any form of exercise that can be done outdoors," she says. Studies show that immersion in nature reduces anxiety and depression and promotes feelings of calm. Exercise added to natural surroundings allows our minds to reduce negative thinking and process information to form a new perspective and help induce us to stand tall and move forward. So walk, run, do yoga, tai chi, or push-ups outdoors in a park, by the beach, or on a trail. It's hard to go wrong.

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2. Grab a friend.

It has long been known that exercising with a friend makes you more likely to stick with it, but a study released in October found that exercising with a friend also makes you happier. This study found that working out with someone else improved mental state and reduced stress by 26 percent.

"There is a chicken/egg scenario that goes on here," explains Elizabeth Lombardo, psychotherapist and author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. "Exercise releases biochemicals that help you bond with those you are working out with, and being together in a community also releases bonding biochemicals. So really it is almost like a double dose of biochemicals, which helps to strengthen your sense of community."

Want to learn more about the impact of exercise on your happiness? Here are 16 ways exercise makes you happier.

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