The theme of 2022’s Mental Health Awareness Month is “Together for Mental Health.” According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Mental health is an incredibly important part of overall health. With a growing number of Americans experiencing mental health symptoms, we need to join together to advocate for improving our nation’s mental health care system.”
So, on one level, this theme centers on those in the mental health community unifying their voices and efforts to advocate for improved access to mental health care. And that is extremely important work. On a more grassroots level, “Together for Mental Health” can also be interpreted to mean individuals joining together to support one another on their personal mental health journeys.
One of the keys to balanced mental health is having a sense of community. No one likes to be—or feel—alone, particularly when times get tough. Reaching out to friends who might need your support, as well as being open to receiving support when you need it yourself, is a vital element of our collective mental health.
Similarly, when it comes to establishing and maintaining a physical-activity routine, having a community of like-minded people who share your goals provides essential social support and is one of the primary factors in predicting long-term success. So, why not couple those two objectives and join with friends and loved ones to pursue physical activity and provide emotional support through conversation and togetherness as you move?
Let’s explore the connection between exercise and mental well-being. Regular exercise improves mental health in several important ways:
- Exercise elevates the production of neurotransmitters that can stimulate the production of new brain cells.
- Learning how to do new things—including new types of exercise—can improve cognition and mental acuity.
- Exercise can boost your self-esteem by offering a sense of accomplishment and success, which has a direct effect on your mental health.
- Exercise can improve sleep, an often-overlooked element of good mental health.
- Exercise can provide a break from your busy routine. Taking some time to do something for your own physical and mental well-being is essential. Many people with anxiety or depression use exercise as a positive coping mechanism.
- Exercising as part of a group—and this is where togetherness comes into play—is an opportunity to connect, make friends and feel like part of a positive and supportive community.
You can enhance some of these benefits by exercising outside, which decreases feelings of tension and anger and allow for the absorption of vitamin D, which can actually help you manage depressive symptoms. Outdoor exercise enhances the benefits of movement, as exposure to nature has been linked to mental health improvements, including stress reduction, improved mood and enhanced cognitive function.
You can also improve mental health by incorporating mindfulness techniques into your daily routine. This can take many forms, including mindful movement, which extends beyond traditional practices like yoga, tai chi and qigong to walking, cycling and rowing, all of which can be made more mindful if you focus on the repetitive movement, your breathing pattern and how your body feels as it moves through space. Meditation, prayer, and breathing exercises are also great options.
So, how does social support help?
You can certainly reap the benefits of exercise on your own, but your chances of long-term adherence are greatly improved if you exercise as part of a group or with a friend or family member. Social support provides camaraderie, accountability and motivation, and makes physical activity a lot more fun. Simply knowing a friend is counting on you to show up makes it more likely that you will do so—and this is a two-way street that helps keep your friend on track, as well.
One final thought: No matter what type of exercise you choose, and whether it’s on your own, with a partner or as part of a group exercise class, adopting a feeling of gratitude can do wonders for your mental health. Think of exercise as a celebration of what you are capable of, not as something that highlights your limitations. Every success along your journey, even if it’s simply a completed class, an extra lap walked at the high school track or one more push-up than you were able to perform the previous week, is worthy of celebration—and celebrating with friends just makes it that much sweeter.