You don't need to be a world-class athlete, an influential yoga instructor, or Sporty Spice to start a healthy exercise routine. This article gives insights on how to start with mini-steps, how body movement is connected to our mental health, and the impacts of aerobic exercise on our mental health.

🚴🏻‍♀️ Exercise and mental health

Regular exercising starts a biological cascade that has positive impacts on your physical body, such as protection against heart disease and diabetes. Exercise can improve sleep quality, and lower blood pressure. The so-called runner's high is reported by joggers which is the result of the body's release of feel-good chemicals like endorphins after a high-intensity exercise [Harvard].

Other positive physical impacts of regular exercise include better endurance, improvement in cardiovascular fitness, weight loss, and a decrease in cholesterol. For the mental body, regular sport or body movement can result in stress relief, better mood, increased energy and stamina, and reduction of tiredness.

The research found that regular exercise improves mental health by reducing depression, anxiety, and negative mood, and it improves self-esteem, and cognitive function.

Exercise is the most potent and underutilized antidepressant - Bill Phillips.

The challenge of getting started

Starting a healthy lifestyle might be easier implemented for a balanced, happy, or optimistic person. Or maybe just someone who doesn't suffer from mental downtime. It is very hard to start exercising when feeling sad, anxious, stressed, or fatigued as the lack of motivation creates an enormous obstacle.

Easy mini-steps to implement in your day

  • Walking the stairs instead of using the elevator and/or the escalator.
  • Instead of taking the scooter, the metro, or an Uber, walk if the distance is within a doable range, e.g. under 30 minutes of walking or less than 2 km.
  • Skipping food delivery apps and picking up the meal yourself.
  • Including walks into your daily life, e.g. 1-hour beach walk, a 1-hour evening stroll through your neighborhood, or a 1-hour morning walk to listen to your favorite audiobook, podcast, or the news.

Like all positive changes we want to have in our lives by changing our habits, it is important to keep the new routine going. Once the routine becomes a habit, it will be part of your daily life without you noticing it. Check-in with yourself after 3 months and if you are ready to take the next step, get a gym membership, buy a foldable yoga mat you can travel with and start the day with yoga or pilates, or start jogging along the beach instead of walking.

The challenge of keeping disciplined

Once you have established your mini-routine, make sure to keep disciplined in order to not lose momentum. It is very easy to get distracted by work, travel preparations, news, and social life. Keep going. And don't wait for motivation. Motivation is a myth. The most valuable book on habit change is Atomic Habits by James Clear.

🏃🏾‍♀️ Impacts of running on your mental health

When you run, your lungs fill up quicker with oxygen, your heart rate increases, and your pulse quickens, and the longer you run the more oxygen is pumped into the bloodstream. Once you finish your run, you will feel a quick and intense release of endorphins which is also known as the runner's high. This feeling can be reached after a shorter run. David Linden, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine says, long-distance runners, however, feel often drained or nauseated. So, we don't need to overdo the exercise either.

Dr. Linden states, endorphins however do not pass the blood-brain barrier and are therefore not the reason behind the mood change after a run. The positive feeling after a run, is rather caused by "endocannabinoids — biochemical substances similar to cannabis but naturally produced by the body", says Dr. Linden. Endocannabinoids can easily pass the blood-brain barrier and can cause short-term psychoactive effects which can reduce anxiety and improve feelings of calm.

Regular cardiovascular exercise, e.g. running, support your body to build new blood vessels which nourish your brain and help to build new brain cells, a process called neurogenesis. Neurogenesis improves overall brain performance and prevents cognitive decline. Additionally, the neocortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning expands with regular exercise and improves working with better focus, better task-switching ability, and mood elevation.

Please note, although I used the example of running, you can substitute this word for any other aerobic activity.

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I know, this sounds like an outdated phrase but if you find value in this article, please share it with someone you know who you think would benefit from this information. The studies I linked in this article might give some insights, and if this article can help someone to improve body movement, this article fulfilled its purpose.