6 Ways To Make Sure Your Workouts Are Helping—Not Harming—Your Mental Health

Photo: Getty Images/Thomas Barwick
My husband likes to joke that you don't want to talk to me if I haven't gotten in a run. He's not wrong. Whenever I'm injured or don't have the time for a few miles, I get crankier than a tired toddler, snap easily, and have been known to mope around feeling sorry for myself. I depend on running not only for that biochemical boost of happy hormones, but as a way to decompress, connect with friends or nature, and feel a sense of accomplishment no matter how crazy life gets.

Of course, it's not exactly news that exercise has serious benefits for our mental health. Physical activity affects our brain structure, and has been shown to help treat and prevent both depression and anxiety disorders, and researchers now believe it may even benefit those with serious psychotic conditions. It's also proven to improve our focus and our mood (just ask my family members), among a host of other mental benefits.

Experts In This Article
  • Pooja Lakshmin, MD, Dr. Pooja Lakshmin MD is a psychiatrist specializing in women's mental health, founder and CEO of Gemma, and a member of Peloton's Health and Wellness Advisory Council.

But there are times when exercise can also backfire, and feed tendencies that aren't quite so helpful. For some people, working out can become another stressor in our lives, adding to our list of must-dos and becoming one more thing to feel guilty about. Or we become obsessive and sometimes take it too far. For others, high-intensity workouts could trigger feelings of anxiety.

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we spoke to Pooja Lakshmin, MD, a member of the Peloton Health and Wellness Advisory Council, who specializes in women’s health and perinatal psychiatry and is the founder and CEO of Gemma. She shared a few suggestions for how we can make sure our workouts are helping—not harming—our mental health. 

1. Make exercise a consistent habit

Although the mental benefit of exercise comes in part from the surge of endorphins, Dr. Lakshmin explains that working out regularly also creates a positive feedback loop. "It's less about the type of activity you do, and more about having it be something that's a regular habit," she says. "Whether that is cardio, or weight training, or yoga, we think more about the frequency of how often you're engaging in an activity."

That's because consistency will give you a sense of mastery, as well as control and agency over how you spend your time, she says. Making fitness a part of your daily life gives you the satisfaction of having set your sights on a task, and completed it.

2. Don't wait for motivation to hit

"Often the times when you least want to exercise are the times when it can be the most helpful," points out Dr. Lakshmin. But when you aren't in the mood to work out, it can be tempting to put it off. "There's a concept we talk about in psychology called behavioral activation. Basically, it means that when you're feeling bad, it's really hard to motivate yourself to do something you know is going to make you feel good."

Instead of waiting for motivation to strike, however, the key is to try to push yourself to do at least a little bit of exercise. As psychologists like to put it, mood follows action. Showing up, even when you don't want to, will change how you feel.

If a long workout seems like too much to tackle, just get your body moving for a few minutes:

3. Focus on values, rather than goals

Although setting fitness goals can inspire us to push ourselves to new heights, they can also backfire. "When you become really rigid around 'I need to do 60-minute workout every single day, and if don’t do that then I’m a failure,' that’s harmful," says Dr. Lakshmin.

The antidote? Focusing on your "why." Whether you want to stay healthy enough to have the energy to play with your grandkids, or cultivate a hobby you love, or connect with your community, remind yourself of what's most important to you. That way, you'll be able to keep the bigger picture in mind as you fit exercise into life's ebbs and flows. "Getting explicit about why you're taking on fitness can protect you from getting rigid or obsessive," says Dr. Lakshmin.

4. Lean into your workouts when you're stressed

Exercise can be an extra helpful coping mechanism during times of transition, or really any stressful period. "There’s the biochemical element of the endorphins that get released, but also bringing you back to a sense of agency, that you’re doing something you know is aligned with your values, that you’re able to master," says Dr. Lakshmin. "It gives you a feeling of control when maybe you feel like your outside environment is out of control."

Try this yoga flow that's literally designed to destress the body:

5. Recognize when your issues are more than exercise can solve

Although getting in a good sweat can make us feel better, it's not a panacea for all our problems. If you find anxiety or depression is reaching a clinical level—meaning you're having trouble functioning in your daily life, whether at work or at home—that's a sign you should get professional help, says Dr. Lakshmin.

Also reach out to a therapist if you notice a pattern of obsessiveness taking over your approach to working out. "If it’s becoming something that is OCD-like, there are specific therapies that are evidence-based, like exposure therapy, which in this case would be working on exposure to not working out," she says.

6. Emphasize rest and recovery just as much as activity

Yes, getting into a regular fitness habit can do wonders for both your mental and physical health. But remind yourself that rest is an equally important skill to cultivate. "Our culture is one that tends to emphasize and exult productivity and success," points out Dr. Lakshmin. Prioritizing rest doesn't come naturally to most of us, but skimping on it can lead to burnout and high levels of stress. "It’s not our fault  that we haven’t learned to do this," says Dr. Lakshmin, "but it is our responsibility to teach ourselves."

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