We tend to focus on the physical benefits of exercise, yet movement also has powerful benefits for the mind.
Beyond endorphins, but new scientific studies prove that even light exercise produces a mix of feel-good hormones, including endocannabinoids. Exercise also clears the mind, reducing anxiety and even depression: A Harvard study found that for every significant increase in your physical activity, you reduce the odds of depression by 26%.
Exercise is also good for the brain. It increases oxygen and blood flow to the brain, promoting neurogenesis and creating new brain cells. It can also enhance focus, concentration, improve sleep, slow aging, and maintain cognitive function.
Even if you don’t try for that runners high, you can attain a walker’s zen: After moderate exercise, experts say you experience mental calmness for hours.
Combining exercise & meditation
If you’re feeling restless, working out before meditation can help settle the body for a more peaceful practice. This is why meditating in savasana at the end of a yoga class is so effective. Especially for intense exercise, which releases the stress hormone cortisol and activates the sympathetic nervous system, meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, clearing stress hormones, and calming the body.
And during exercise, you can make any physical activity a meditation by focusing on your breath and the movements of your body. This could be as simple as going for a walk and paying attention to the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, to trying more dangerous sports such as kite surfing which require your continual focus.
And once you’ve mastered a sport, your thinking mind can turn off and you enter a flow-like state. Your merge with the activity and your environment. A true meditative state.
These benefits are increased in nature, where just by spending time in natural beauty, you boost your happiness and reduce anxiety.
You could even try a walking meditation, like the ones taught by Thích Nhất Hạnh. I personally practice Joe Dispenza’s walking meditations a few times a week, walking for 80-90 minutes on a beach focusing inward while moving through the external world. They are some of my deepest meditations.
But what if you don’t like the gym?
You don’t have to workout to get the mental benefits, just move. You can dance, roller-skate, play pickle ball, or do what brings you joy.
Variety and consistency is key for fitness, but for psychological benefits, the only thing you need to be consistent about is moving your body in some way. If you find an exercise program you can stick to and enjoy, wonderful. But if you just try to move your body every day, you’ll still reap the mental benefits.
Make a positive imprint
Research suggests how you feel at the end of a workout affects your overall attitude towards exercise. To end your session on a high note, try a yoga class that ends in savasana or a HiIT class with deep stretching at the end. Or, structure your workout with a big push in the middle and time for winding down and stretching at the end.
The most powerful effect comes from making exercise a lifestyle by combining it with daily movement. This not only relieves anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders, but also prevents their onset and regulates mood fluctuations. Consider cycling to work, taking the stairs, or spending more time dancing than drinking.
And I’ll see you on that dance floor.