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Five Mental Benefits of Getting Started with Exercise

When you start a new exercise program, you are eager for change. We may feel like it can’t happen fast enough. I started taking Pilates classes because I didn’t want to be in pain during my dance classes. It took time before I could appreciate the effects of Pilates: stronger hips, glutes and abdominal muscles and improved proprioception and strength in my arms, neck and back.

The good news is that we can gain positive effects from exercise and improve our well-being immediately. Here are five emotional and mental health benefits of committing to meeting recommended exercise guidelines. You can measure your efforts daily (25 minutes) or weekly (150 minutes). When we believe we can have what we want from exercise, we strengthen other skills including: 

#1 Effective Decision Making – Making a decision ahead of time, e.g., signing up for a class, has a win-win effect on your brain. You get a boost from making the commitment, and you get the reward when you follow through. At first, it may feel hard to stick with your decision to attend a class; then, over time your brain prefers the reward of going over the discomfort of not going. It’s a positive, upward spiral.

#2 Better Time and Attention Management – Making a decision ahead of time means we also decide how to arrange our time before and after that commitment. When we create space in our day for exercising, we also improve our ability to focus and pay attention to tasks at hand. This goes nicely with the next skill that comes with new workouts:

#3 Less Perfectionism – Maybe some of us used to think that exercise only counts if you did it for an hour? Had at least 30 minutes of cardio? Have to shower afterward? Are sore and tired the next day? There is no perfect but there is ideal, and ideal is the workout we do consistently in any amount. Letting go of perfectionism benefits our emotional and mental health. This also creates…

#4 More Self-Sufficiency – Wait, what? Any amount of exercise? How can a class make me more self-sufficient? Are we relying on the teacher, timing and other people to hold us accountable? See #1 - #3. When we make a decision ahead of time, repeat it consistently, and see the results, we increase trust in ourselves. That’s when we decide to go for a walk, even if it’s only 10 minutes. We look up a video on YouTube and learn from a new teacher. We listen to our bodies and notice when they need more movement, and when they need to rest. 

How do we ensure that we have time to exercise? 

We may need to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.

Taking time for exercise might mean that others’ needs have to wait, if only briefly. When taking care of or serving other peoples’ needs is part of your identity at work or at home, then making time to exercise may feel hard or even scary. 

That's why the fifth benefit of prioritizing exercise is a healthy discernment of our range of responsibilities. See #3. There isn’t a perfect formula that applies to everyone, all the time.

This is the key: being open to the possibility that there’s time to feel better and healthy is the first step to making that happen.

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