Whether you want to get fit to lose weight, build muscle, keep your bones and joints strong, strengthen your heart and lungs, or support your immune system, it goes without saying being fit is good for your physical health. Your have probably known this for most of your life, and there are reams of studies to back up the latter claims.
But you’re so much more than just your physical body. I’m talking about your brain, your mind, your emotional state, your happiness.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four American adults will experience a mental illness in any given year. Around 18 percent live with an anxiety disorder, such as a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not to mention the fact that depression and other mood disorders account for the third highest cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for those aged 18 to 44.
And that’s just the diagnosable mental illnesses!
We all should be aware of our mental health an how it can fluctuate depending on our current life circumstances. And the truth is, working out and sweating—not to mention generally feeling more physically capable and fit for whatever life throws at us—makes people happier. Period.
I am in no way suggesting that being fit cures severe mental illness, but the benefits can be significant. In fact, studies have shown working out can produce the same positive effects as taking an antidepressant.
Take 21-year-old Miranda from Ontario, Canada, for example. She suffers from anxiety and depression, but says working out helps her emotional state tremendously.
“A lot of people who have anxiety like to isolate themselves, so it’s really good to put yourself in a healthy, social situation like the gym,” Miranda said. “Generally after the gym, I always feel relieved. It’s a huge stress reliever for me, especially if I’m feeling anxious.”
She added: “It really contributes to my life emotionally. I get to sweat out any anger or stress I’m feeling, and instead of taking it out on my mom and getting into a huge argument, I sweat it out at the gym. Whenever I leave, I always feel better. I never feel super depressed after a workout and I usually get in the car or walk home feeling happy.”
Of course, getting fit isn’t the only “natural” way to improve your mental health.
Here are 5 others to consider:
- Eat well: Healthy eating goes a long way to improved mental health. Staying away from processed foods should be a priority, as well as refined sugars, which have been linked to depression. Meanwhile other studies that have shown an elevated risk of depression in those with a low intake of fish, fruits and vegetables. Omega 3 fatty acids in fish are known to contribute to elevated moods, and also to improved cognition.
- Check your vitamin intake: Nutritional deficiencies—particularly deficiencies in folic acid, thiamine and magnesium, have also been linked to depression. If you’re concerned, get some blood work done. Supplementation of Vitamin D (aka the ‘sunshine vitamin’) and possibly B vitamins can be useful, too—they have been shown to improve mood and decrease anxiety. (The B vitamin Inositol has been shown to be as effective as an anti-anxiety medication).
- Keep in touch with friends: This one should be obvious, but all too often we get busy with our lives (or the lives of our family members) and we neglect the importance of the meaningful friendships in our lives. The benefits of close friendships cannot be overstated. Having people who we can be open with about our feelings, and about life’s ups and downs, successes and hardships, is vitally important to our mental health. People with strong social connections, quite simply, are healthier than those who lack a support network.
- Deep breathing, meditation, prayer: To help promote relaxation, reduce stress and improve sleep, it’s smart to develop a deep breathing practice. Breathe in deeply through the nose (stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system), and exhale through the mouth. Meditation, meanwhile, can help quiet the mind and produce a sense of calm. Mindfulness meditation is one of the best ways to slow down an overactive mind and instead focus on the present. It could be argued that much of the emotional turmoil we experience is the result of thinking about the past and/or worrying about the future. Mindfulness meditation brings us back to the present and teaches us to tune into our bodies and our senses.
- Volunteer: One of the best ways to let go of our own stresses and/or negative life circumstances is to put our focus on others. Helping others can give us perspective.