Often when we think about the benefits of exercise, we’re motivated by the thought of a smaller waistline or a more toned physique. But one of the most remarkable and sometimes overlooked benefits of keeping active is improved mental health. When you exercise it reduces two of your most active stress hormones—cortisol and adrenaline—while stimulating the production of endorphins which naturally enhance mood. Two amazing benefits, right? However, exercise can also increase the amount of physical and mental stress placed on your body. Typically, this depends on the type of exercise, and how often you perform high-stress activities. In this article, we’re going to focus on exercises that not only keep you active but reduce your body’s stress hormones. While we’re at it, I’ve included nutritious food pairings to help power these activities. Keep reading for my six tips to move your body and calm your mind.
It may not come as a surprise that yoga is at the top of this list. Studies show that yoga increases physical flexibility and strength while improving your mood and well-being. It also helps reduce anxiety and stress by developing greater awareness. However, not all yoga practices fall under this category. Restorative practices, like yin or hatha yoga (where you don’t plan to break a heavy sweat), are more likely to provide these mind-calming effects.
TIP Power your activity with Greek yogurt with berries
Tai Chi & Qigong
Tai Chi and Qigong are traditional Chinese low-impact mind-body exercises that have been practiced for centuries for their health benefits. Research suggests these health benefits include a reduction in stress, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and mood disturbances, all of which add up to improved mental well-being. Both Tai Chi and Qigong are exercises suitable for a diverse population with regards to age, fitness level, and health status.
TIP Power your activity with avocado toast topped with an egg
Swimming is definitely an exercise that works and moves your body. But did you know it can significantly improve your mental health? According to a recent study swimming significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression for 1.4 million British adults. In another study, commissioned by Swim England, they concluded that 490,000 people have reduced, or no longer take medication for their mental health condition as a result of swimming. And whether you swim for exercise or leisure, the calming benefits are still the same.
TIP Power this higher energy activity with Tomato Basil Pasta with Chicken Meatballs
"When you exercise it reduces two of your most active stress hormones—cortisol and adrenaline—while stimulating the production of endorphins which naturally enhance mood."–Kate Turner, MA, RD, CSSD, CPT
We obviously know that dance moves our body, but what does it do to your mind? Whether you’re just moving to the music or following a choreographed routine, your mind is working and focused on the movement. Have you ever heard the phrase “getting lost in dance?” This is exactly how dance can help calm your mind. Even better, try adding a partner to your dance routine. A recent study suggested that social partner dancing was associated with self-perceived positive improvements in physical fitness, cognitive functioning, social functioning, affect, and self-confidence.
TIP Power this higher energy activity with Ginger Miso
I’m sure we’ve all been in a position where we need to “take a walk” to clear our mind or calm down. Walking has been shown to not only calm our mind but also gives our brain a mental boost similar to the other exercises discussed above. Just going for a walk a few times per week has also been shown to reduce the risk of developing depression and depressive symptoms. Walking can get overlooked as exercise, but it has one of the longest lists of health benefits and can be done anywhere.
TIP Power your activity with a piece of fruit + 1 tablespoon of nut butter
Take your workout outside
To bring all of these exercises to the next, mind-calming level, take your exercise outdoors! Studies show that outdoor environments can bring about short-term recovery for stress and mental fatigue, and show long-term improvements in health and well-being. My personal favorite is a morning walk (preferably on the beach) to help calm my mind and find focus for the day ahead.
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