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CW: Depression, Mental Illness, and Self-Harm

Waking up early to go to the gym or going for a run after a long workday can be challenging, especially for those living with mental health conditions. Exercise is usually the last thing on someone’s mind when it takes all of their energy to get out of bed or leave the house. However, routine exercise can boost mental health and may help treat anxiety and other mood disorders. 

Exercise can help manage stress and make the body more resilient, according to the American Psychological Association. Beyond stress, exercise can be helpful for people who experience anxiety, panic attacks, or depression. Getting outside for a run or lifting weights helps give people a sense of accomplishment. It also mimics the responses that sometimes come with anxiety and panic such as heavy breathing and sweating which can help people better manage their emotions. 

Physically, exercise creates a release of dopamine and serotonin, which can improve mood. Vigorous activities such as running, cycling, swimming, and CrossFit are beneficial for people’s mental health, but not everyone will enjoy these activities. The Mayo Clinic suggests that people start their exercise routine by finding an activity they enjoy. It could be basketball, walking, yoga, or dancing. 

After people find a fun activity, it’s important to set realistic goals. Just doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week may significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic. Depending on people’s personal lives, work schedules, and fitness levels, they can set goals to help them stick to an exercise routine for the best physical and mental results. Any form of movement is a good start. Even stretching for 10 minutes a day can provide mental and physical benefits, according to the Mayo Clinic

When making exercise plans, it’s also important that people analyze what barriers they might have and that they prepare for setbacks. Some people may not be able to afford a gym membership or don’t have access to a pool or basketball court. If that’s the case, people can focus on goals without equipment such as walking, running, or exercising at home. Additionally, it’s important that people give themselves credit for making progress along the way, according to the Mayo Clinic. Flexibility in workout plans and scheduling helps keep people motivated in the long run. 

I personally find that setting realistic exercise goals at the beginning of each week holds me accountable while managing a busy life in grad school. Growing up as a multi-sport athlete, I have always used sports and exercise as an outlet for stress. As I got older, I started to focus on endurance sports such as swimming, running, and triathlon. However, my journey with sports has not been linear. I faced injuries, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks while running on a Division I college team. Now, I’m finding my love for the sport again. 

For me, running provides a cathartic escape. It allows me to push myself to the limit and see what I’m capable of. Putting one foot in front of the other is like a metaphor for living with depression and anxiety. I am breathing heavily, I feel uncomfortable, and I want to give up, but I don’t. That’s the beauty of exercise. It pushes people past what they thought they were capable of, boosts self-esteem, and provides hope. Many times, it also offers people community. 

There is a certain bond that athletes have because they put themselves through pain to reach individual and collective goals. For example, the years of college when I lost my love for running taught me more about myself than any medal or race ever could. The girls at practice always had my back and were the reason I kept showing up every day. Collectively, my teammates helped me navigate some of the highest and lowest moments in my life. That’s the beauty of exercise. It allows us to feel everything, push ourselves, and lean on others for support. 

Exercise also helps me combat difficult behaviors associated with depression such as self-harm. While there are a variety of strategies to help people find alternatives to self-harm such as doing something creative, going outside, or listening to music, exercise has been an effective alternative for me. According to Healthline, exercise offers a distraction that helps lift a low mood and relieves overwhelming thoughts. Doing strenuous activities helps me stay in the present moment and provides a sense of safety that many other activities can’t. 

The amazing thing about exercise is that everyone can do some form of it. While some people have more limitations than others, exercise can lead to positive outcomes for anyone. It doesn’t have to be complicated. A simple exercise routine is beneficial for people with or without mental health challenges and can lead to better overall health. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it. 

Works Cited:

American Psychological Association. Working out Boosts Brain Health. American Psychological Association.

Healthline. (2021, March 12). Self-harm alternatives: 7 techniques that actually work. Healthline.

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2017, September 27). Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. Mayo Clinic.


  • doodle baseball

    Though individuals may have varying limitations, engaging in exercise can yield positive outcomes for everyone. It doesn’t need to be intricate; a straightforward exercise routine is advantageous for individuals, whether or not they face mental health challenges, and can contribute to overall well-being. While it may pose challenges, the benefits make it worthwhile.

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  • Kylie

    Nice blog, Greta! I grew up in a lot of sports, but dropped out of all of them in college. I had no idea how much I would miss being on a team, accomplishing athletic goals, and feeling free and empowered. Recently, I finished an 8-week 5k training program. It’s the best I’ve felt in a long, long time. My favorite part is the freedom that comes from trail running – the fresh air, the beauty of nature, the songs of birds. I’ve been surprised by how much my depression has improved in the time that I’ve been running again. I’ve fallen in love with running and my improved daily mood so much that I’m starting a 10K program! I can’t wait to see what’s next!! Thank you for sharing your experience 🙂

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  • kadashika

    Keep exercising and become a better version of yourself

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  • scratch games

    Physical activity has many benefits for all people, regardless of their restrictions. No matter how complicated it is, getting regular exercise is good for everyone’s health, even those who struggle with mental illness. In spite of any difficulties, it will be well worth it in the end.

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  • hhaha

    that’s great to read google

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  • drywall company

    Acknowledging the difficulty, incorporating exercise into a routine can indeed be a powerful ally in managing mental health.

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