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How exercise can benefit our mental health

You've heard all about the physical benefits of exercise – but how about the mental ones? Research has shed more light on the ways exercise can benefit our mental health in recent years, and it makes it all the more compelling to take a walk or a jog. Veterans who are struggling with their mental health can benefit greatly from light exercise (see the most common mental health conditions faced by Veterans here). Between cognitive function and brain chemicals that make us feel good, exercise is a vital component of a healthy life.

NOTE: Are you exercising while recovering from an injury? Familiarize yourself with altered body mechanics, and how it can cause other conditions.

Here are 5 ways that exercise can benefit our mental health:

Exercise releases endorphins

When we exercise, our bodies release endorphins – a hormone responsible for making us feel good. These "feel good hormones" are natural stress relievers, proven to reduce pain levels and promote a general sense of wellness in our mind and body. You may have heard of "runner's high" before, an occurrence where people experience a euphoric feeling after a prolonged period of running. Endorphins are to thank for that feeling! You don't have to run a marathon to reap the benefits, though. Light to moderate intensity exercise is extremely beneficial as well.

It reduces stress and anxiety hormone levels

Thanks to those endorphins we just talked about, stress and anxiety are lower after exercising. Stress hormones – such as cortisol – are decreased, while serotonin production becomes stimulated (a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good). This combination can also help us sleep better at night, which has a massively positive effect on our mental health. In case you missed it, we wrote a whole blog about how the quality of our sleep impacts our mental health.

Cognitive function and memory are improved with physical activity

Studies have shown that moderate intensity exercise results in a performance boost in both memory and cognitive flexibility – the brain's ability to switch between tasks and shift attention. This is helpful both short and long term, promoting blood flow to the brain and cellular growth. Maintaining a consistent exercise routine can help our brains stay sharper longer, reducing the risk of cognitive decline as we age.

Self-esteem and confidence can increase, boosting our mood

Not only does exercise strengthen our brain function on a chemical level, it can also benefit us emotionally by increasing our self-esteem and confidence, leading to better moods. Achieving fitness goals – whether beginner or advanced – can foster a sense of accomplishment, along with the positive changes you can both see and feel in your body. When practiced regularly, this confidence can positively affect the other areas of your life, too – resulting in better overall satisfaction in both personal and professional life.

Exercise can provide a sense of community

Whether you join a group fitness class or try your hand at team sports, exercise can bring people together – providing opportunities for social interaction. Life after service can feel isolating for some Veterans. Building connections with people in your community through physical activity is a great way to get involved and stay connected, all while benefiting both physical and mental health. The stress of mental health conditions can affect our bodies, and community support is one important component in finding a path forward.

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