Mental Health Awareness Month offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on and reprioritize our mental health and wellness. As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Taking time for reflection is important; knowing what drains our energy and what gives us energy strengthens our ability to honor and take care of ourselves. I want to highlight one tool within our mental health and wellness toolbox:  Exercise.  

Exercise is an excellent tool for relieving stress, increasing energy, and promoting positive wellbeing. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 30 minutes a day of physical activity. However, you do not need to push through a session at the gym to receive the perks associated with regular physical activity. Walks around your neighborhood, opting to take stairs, and even doing squats while your brush your teeth can all provide benefits. Studies show that regardless of age or fitness level, exercise can provide some mental health benefits, such as:

Promoting happiness 

Exercise releases endorphins, creating feelings of happiness and euphoria. Research has shown that, in some cases, exercise works as well as medication in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression – and the effects can be long-lasting. One vigorous exercise session can alleviate symptoms for hours, and a regular schedule may significantly reduce them over time. 

Preventing cognitive decline

The brain typically shrinks in late adulthood, and this shrinkage plays a role in age-related memory decline. Working out, especially between ages 25 and 45, boosts the chemicals in the brain that support and prevents degeneration of the hippocampus, an important part of the brain for memory and learning. 

Physical exercise is also important in remaining mentally sharp in advanced age. A 2012 study of people in their early 70s found that those who engaged in regular physical exercise, such as walking, retained bigger brains than those who were inactive.

Increasing relaxation 

For some, a moderate workout can be the equivalent of a sleeping pill, even for people with insomnia. Moving around 5 to 6 hours before bedtime raises the body’s core temperature. When the body temp drops back down to normal a few hours later, it signals the body it’s time to sleep.

Boosting brainpower 

Multiple studies conducted on mice and men show cardiovascular exercise can create new brain cells (neurogenesis) and improve overall brain performance. Studies suggest a tough workout increases levels of brain-derived protein in the body, which is believed to help with decision making, higher thinking, and learning. 

Supporting recovery 

Routine physical activity during treatment and recovery will help reintroduce natural levels of endorphins into the system. This helps with feeling better, but it also reteaches the body that it is capable of regulating its own brain chemistry and mood in healthy, natural ways.

We all deserve time to rest and recharge so we can be our best. I urge everyone to prioritize their own mental health and wellbeing. We won’t be effective in helping others unless we first take care of ourselves. 

Andrea Brooks is Chief Program Officer for the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS), where she oversees the Division of Behavioral Health.