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How You Can Use Exercise to Positively Affect Your Mental Health

Although many studies have shown that engaging in exercise is good for your overall health, including your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I always feel like working out or moving my body. For example, when I was in my early 20s, I over-exercised and restricted my diet to the point where I became underweight for my height and gave myself body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). At the time, I was resentful towards my relationship with the gym and food, so I ended up abusing both, never going to the gym and, for the most part, eating what I wanted. But this didn’t work either. For me, it was a long road to get back to a healthy relationship with exercise, food, and my body, but it is a necessary journey we must all take in order to begin molding our future selves and loving the life we live. Today I will share some of the best strategies I utilized when trying to figure out how you can use exercise to positively affect your mental health. 

Movement is Medicine 

One thing that I had to keep reminding myself of is that movement is medicine. It is a blessing that I can take my dogs for a walk or a rollerblade without having to worry about any physical limitations. Besides, getting outside and being active always leaves me in a better mental state, especially if I go unplugged. Something that I did not want to have to come to terms with, but eventually did, was that I will have to deal with these problems or concerns for the rest of my life. Now I don’t mean to make it sound so bleak; I just mean that I realized I needed to make a lifelong commitment to my health and figure out better techniques for keeping my body and mind functioning properly. Avoiding exercise purposefully and being harsh on my own body wasn’t going to fly anymore. I also have sports injuries from when I was a teenager that I knew would only worsen with age if I didn’t get my act together. I don’t want to slow down as I get older, so now is the time to put my body in motion so that it stays in motion.  

Start Where You Are At 

Another essential thing to remember is that we’re not all athletes! You need to start where you’re at. So if that means walking around the block on Monday and twice around the block on Tuesday, you need to count that as a win. For some, getting ‘back into the swing of things’ means gearing up to be able to run five kilometers again. Not me; I just know that people do that sort of thing. It was really important for my mental health when I was starting back up again to not be too hard on myself and not expect to get right back to where I was immediately. I wanted to be back in the squat rack with 25s on either side, not 5s. Once again, another hard pill to swallow, but you can’t expect to mold yourself overnight. 

Set Realistic, Achievable Goals 

On the journey to become the best version of yourself, it is crucial always to set goals that you will actually be able to reach through effort and determination. By setting realistic, achievable exercise goals, you can avoid becoming too hard on yourself, my biggest challenge, and keep the inner dialogue positive. Furthermore, each time you reach a new goal, you will have small wins to celebrate, which positively affects your overall mental wellness. For example, when I started back, some of my goals were only to eat take-out once a week and exercise three times a week. After I consistently hit that goal, then it was time to re-evaluate. It was vital for me to re-incorporate my exercise routine slowly; otherwise, my mind can get overwhelmed, resulting in a spiral. 

Get Others Involved 

One of the best ways to stay accountable is getting others involved, whether a spouse, friend, or your pets. Exercising or moving your body with others can significantly improve not only your mental wellness but also your relationship with them. In my case, my dogs now know the word ‘walk’ and get excited to go when it’s time in our daily routine. This not only keeps me accountable for giving them a walk, but I typically leave my phone at home and use the 15-30 minutes to take a break and reflect on my day or how I’m feeling. And then, on the flip side, if I’m feeling anxious or frustrated about things going on in my life, I call my best friend, and we go run stairs until my legs are noodles. As a result, I almost always finish a walk or running stairs feeling refreshed and in a better mindset, if not a little thirsty.

Always Do Your Best 

Something I have written on my vision board, which is directly above my desk so that I see it every day, is the quote “Always Do Your Best.” This is an important caveat to remember in all facets of life, including your work and personal life. If you put 100% effort into something, even if the outcome doesn’t go exactly how you wanted, you know that you have done your best, and that’s all you can demand of yourself. You notice how I don’t mention that ‘doing your best’ in the context of exercise means getting your ideal body. While changes to your body will result from working out and moving regularly, having a nicer-looking body should not be the only reason you’re exercising. Instead, you should exercise to keep your body and mind healthy so that you can mold your future self while also keeping your mental health in check throughout the process.

Final Thoughts Personally, it was a long road to get to a place where I was no longer resentful towards my relationship with food and exercise. As you can see, one of the main things I stress is having a healthy and kind dialogue between your mind and body. We are always the hardest on ourselves, but if we give ourselves some leeway as well as create intuitive and realistic fitness goals, we can work to repair that inner dialogue. By not expecting too much from yourself right off the bat, setting achievable goals, following through, getting others involved, and always doing your best, you can truly learn to “Fire” your “Old Self” to make way for “Our NEW SELF” while remembering that Life’s Short, Love the Life You Live!

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Dani VanDusen

Dani VanDusen is a freelance writer and editor located in St. Albert, Alberta, Canada. She holds a BA in English from the University of Alberta where she graduated with distinction, and has been freelancing since the middle of the pandemic. An avid mental health enthusiast, rollerblade extraordinaire, dog mama, and pizza lover, she is a self-proclaimed ‘weirdo’ and says that this helps her be relatable and open in her writing. Dani has been a writer for the Fire Yourself movement since August 2021 and is an integral part of our content team.
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