Published in ThriveGlobal on May 13, 2019

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Strength training doesn't just build muscles and trim your waistline—it's also one of the best prescriptions for mental health. Here's how to stay away from stress and burn-out, and start lifting towards a calmer, more confident you!

Anyone who has ever tasted the endorphin cocktail of a damn good workout knows how powerful exercise can be. Physical activity—any activity—can help build strong bones and muscles, reduce body fat, improve your immune function and reduce the risk of metabolic problems such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But apart from the purely physical, there’s evidence that when you move your body, the mind will follow.

People who exercise regularly tend to sleep better, feel more energetic, have a clearer mind and feel really positive about themselves—something that makes me feel really positive about the job I do! Training makes so much sense from a mental health point of view. Which means that if you want to be healthy and happy, you cannot help but get moving. For someone who has dealt with depression I know that when you’re feeling really lousy the last thing you want to do is move. Rolling up into a ball under a blanket sounds more like it. But EVERY time I forced myself to take a walk around the block or to do a quick and simple workout at home I was rewarded with feeling better the rest of the day.

Sport as Medicine

There’s a ton of compelling evidence showing the benefits of exercise for mental health, and I’m not just talking about the “runner’s high.” Here are some of the ways that sweating it out can support your mental wellbeing:

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Gives you the happy factor. Exercise generates the release of powerful neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. These chemicals are known for their mood-enhancing and anti-fatigue effects, so they have a really positive effect on your mood and energy levels. Or, to put it more simply, exercise gives you a rush of happy!

Helps you cope in healthy ways. Feeling emotionally well and stable allows you to control your own state of mind, which means you can cope much better with all the crap life throws at you. People who exercise regularly are generally much more resilient to stress, and are much more likely to cope with everyday frustrations in a healthy way, instead of suffering from anxiety and burnout.

Sarah L: “I feel much more confident in general. I switched jobs a few months after I started personal training, I would’ve used this stress as an excuse to stop working out but this time the opposite happened. I feel more energized at work and more comfortable juggling a lot of projects at once.”

Victoria L.: “During stressful times I find that exercise is essential. Exercise is an escape valve where I can safely blow off steam and take out my frustration by increasing the intensity of whatever exercise I am doing. I was dealing with a very stressful family situation with a very ill parent, although to some it seemed strange that I took 1.5 hours to go the gym, coming back more relaxed and clear-headed allowed me to better help my family.”

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Lifts long-term lows. Exercise is a powerful depression-fighter and alleviates clinical problems like depression, anxiety and insomnia by reducing inflammation in the brain, amongst other things. The mood-lifting effects of exercise can even replace the effects of antidepressants in some cases. It is not always that simple and when you feel depressed, it’s always a good idea to consult a mental health professional but one thing I know for sure – exercise has NEVER made me feel worse.

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Boots self esteem. Sustained exercise can slim you down, buff you up and sculpt contours where none existed before! You shouldn’t underestimate the impact this has on self-image. It’s not shallow to want your body to function and feel and look better—you deserve to feel strong and agile and vital! These feelings can massively boost your sense of worth. It’s like a miracle cure for self esteem.

Raven W.: “Never in a million years did I think I could squat over 100lbs! Never in a million years did I think I could run a mile under 10 minutes. Never in a million years did I think I could be this healthy and fit. This is the smallest I’ve been ever in my life. I literally stare in the mirror and can’t believe the person I’m looking at and it feels great.”

Promotes consistency and self-discipline. Even the act of committing to an exercise regime has positive benefits. Maintaining a routine can help you become consistent with yourself. It teaches you to concentrate and persevere; to fight for your goals and have the courage to master challenges. This type of disciplined attitude has crossovers with other areas of our lives, such as improving your performance at work or in education. From personal experience I can say that sticking to a schedule and has a calming effect on my depressive states, it helps me to function even when I’m not feeling my best. Exercise and the consistency of it has helped me when I felt low.

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Boosts self confidence. If I had to sum these benefits up, I’d say they come down to one thing: self-confidence. So many of us walk around in a bubble of “I can’t do this, I’m worthless. I feel helpless.” But when you manage to lift an extra 10 lbs on the bench press or survive an entire workout without feeling like you’re dying, that attitude changes to “I’ve totally got this. I’m invincible. I’m on top of the world!“

Lily C.: “Physically, I’ve not only lost body fat and gained muscle, but I am also eating better, sleeping better, and feeling better. I’ve learned to listen to my body, to respect it, and to treat it well! Mentally, working out (with Anka) has really taught me to be patient with myself, but still demand that I push myself as hard as I can and still have fun doing it. Most importantly, I have gained a new sense of confidence and empowerment!”

Does How You Exercise Matter?

Seriously, anything that gets you moving can unlock all of these potent health benefits. But you’ll get a much bigger impact if you’re not suffering for the results!

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Personality plays a big part in how you exercise. Extroverts, for instance, gain energy from the outside. They like teamwork, competition, stimulation (lights, music) and open spaces. Fitness is about community for these types. If this is you, you’ll do really well in Crossfit, Zumba classes and Spartan races.

For introverts like me who get energized from within, working out one-on-one in a more private setting provides some focused “me” time. Introverts need time alone to recharge and be mindful towards themselves after an exhausting day at work, not another noisy room of jiggling bodies! Many dislike the idea of training in an open gym because they find it an intimidating environment too focused on socializing and primping. That’s why I will soon be offering Personal Training for Introverts —working out and getting fit in a truly private setting with just me in my private gym (I am building that right now!).

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The bottom line is that we’re all different, and if we want to experience the amazing mental health benefits of exercise, then we should not only listen to what our bodies are telling us, but listen to what our minds are telling us. The most reliable barometer for a good workout is your own gut feeling—do you feel comfortable in this class, in this gym or with this instructor? Do you feel energized? Are you having fun? When you find the right activity in the right environment and it becomes a habit, that’s when you start noticing some powerful changes to your body AND your mind.

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