Get Moving! 5 Ways Physical Health Improves a Mama’s Mental Health

Feeling Stressed?

Maybe Anxious?

Low energy or depressed?

How about overwhelmed?

Exercise is going to help, and research proves it.

I bet as you read this you’re doing having one of the following reactions:

Nodding your head, totally agreeing, because when you exercise, you feel more grounded, patient, feel better.


Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this before, I know, I know I should be exercising, but can’t find the time, have no motivation, and no support to do so.


Don’t think so. I hate exercise. It’s over-rated and under-delivers.

As a busy working mom to four daughters, being pulled in 101 directions almost every day from the minute my feet hit the ground in the morning, I get it, really I do.

Finding the time to something for yourself can be difficult when you’re taking care of your family.

Here’s the thing: it’s not about FINDING the time.

It’s about MAKING the time.

There’s a difference because we prioritize what we value.

We make the time to grocery shop, clean, take care of our kids, go to work, volunteer, make sure everyone has the forms they need for school, the right equipment for sports or music or dance, scheduling doctors appointments and play-dates, you name it.

So many of us moms prioritize our children and families, which is important and essential. But here’s the thing-are you valuing your health and well-being?

I promise ( because I live it and no, we don’t have any family or help to watch the kids) it’s possible to prioritize and value your family and take care of yourself.

Which means you have to MAKE the time for yourself, including physical activity.

We give so much of ourselves to so many, and the reality is, exercise and taking care of ourselves, often goes to the bottom of the priority list.

So many moms I work with are short on time but want to choose one thing to do to have the biggest impact of self-care on their overall well-being. And what I almost always suggest:start with exercise or physical activity (the exception, if they’re not getting enough sleep, then stabilize sleep and add in exercise soon after).

I’ve seen it in my life and the clients I’ve supported in therapy: physical activity helps to improve mental health, reduce and manage stress, and increase positive emotions.

Exercise is not an end all, be all cure. BUT it does help to improve mental health.

Regardless of your reaction, here’s five research driven facts why physical exercise is good for your mental health:

1. Exercise Lessens Anxiety and Depression.
Research shows that physically active people have lower rates of depression and anxiety compared to those who are sedentary.

2. Physical Activity Can Improve Sleep.
Many studies show that exercise will help you fall asleep faster and can improve the quality of your sleep. However, be aware, for some people, exercising too close to bedtime can be disruptive. For example, aerobic exercise releases endorphins, which can keep be stimulating for some. Which means difficulty falling asleep. The key is to know yourself, pay attention to what works for you. To read more check out this link from Johns Hopkins University on sleep and exercise.

3. Exercise Improves Mood.
Have you ever noticed how on a day when your kids don’t go outside everyone can seem a bit more irritable? Just like our children need physical activity and play time, so do we! A change of scenery, getting outside moving (or inside if it’s tough to get out) moving improves everyone’s mood. And did you know, exercise helps circulation and blood flow to your brain! (And your brain is the foundation of your mood and physical health).

4. Physical Activity Reduces Stress.
Physical activity increases the production of norepinephrine ( produced in our brains when we are active). This chemical produced in our brains helps to manage and cope with stress. And, in addition to this chemical, exercise gives our bodies a chance to ‘practice dealing’ with stress by allowing our bodies to communicate with all of the physiological systems. Specifically, when you exercise, you activate your cardiovascular, renal, and muscular systems, all of which are controlled by our nervous systems. And when we are stressed, guess what happens? Yes! All of these systems activate starting within the nervous system when responding to stress. Fascinating don’t you think? Exercise provides conditioning or practice for our body to deal with stress. If you want to read more, please go here to the APA for information on this topic: excerise and stress. 

5. Exercise Boosts Energy
I know the logic may not make sense when you are feeling tired and overwhelmed; how does moving help when all you want is sleep? Well, research has shown that exercise helps to build stamina and endurance and trains our muscles and cardiovascular system to work efficiently. When we don’t exercise, our body has to work harder to keep up with the demands we place on it. So, even small amounts of activity every day will help keep up your endurance and strengthen your systems, so you don’t feel as tired doing daily activities. And here’s something to consider, if you want to sit and rest, try a little physical activity first and then see if you still want to sit. Chances are a little activity builds more energy. And when we have more energy, we feel less stress and more accomplished with our day.

Here’s a practical point, if you react negatively to the word ‘exercise,’ I want to encourage you to reframe exercise as simply moving every day for your health and well-being. If ‘exercise’ conjures up dread and annoyance, consider daily physical activity in creative ways. For example, take the stairs, walk throughout the day, park your car as far as you from the store to get some extra steps, and move in playful ways, like dancing and spending time at a park or in the yard with your kids. And if you need an extra push, reach out to a supportive friend, go for a walk to connect.

And finally, here’s something I want to add-over decades of supporting clients, I can’t tell you how many times clients come in with symptoms of depression or anxiety (mild to moderate) who do not exercise and could benefit from medication for their presenting symptoms. Often, these clients are reluctant to take medication for many reasons; the stigma of mental health medication, being cautious about taking a medication, or perceiving medication as a last resort.

I can tell you this, one thing I ALWAYS suggest for clients are on the fence about medication but could benefit from it-bring in physical activity to your everyday life. And if they don’t notice improvement (we agree on a specific time frame) in their symptoms, or they are unable to make some lifestyle changes, then medication plus therapy may be the best option to get through this time in a client’s life and/or stress. Sometimes clients find increasing activity and therapy are enough to help with symptoms, others decide medication and lifestyle changes and therapy are helpful, and some feel so weighed down by lack of motivation to make changes, medication is the best treatment option. I also want to emphasize that exercise and physical activity are not substitutes for medication. Medication for some mental health issues can mean the difference between health and well-being and disruption and suffering. There are so many individual differences which is why reaching out to a medical professional to discuss options is the best place to start.

The bottom line is this: taking care of your physical health and well-being is the foundation of taking care of your mental health.

So get moving, make it fun, and remember, you’re taking care of your mental health when you’re physically active, and that’s a beautiful gift to give yourself and those you care for.

© Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2019

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