Exercise has been living on our to-do lists for as long as anyone can remember. The top motivations? Lose weight, get in shape. But while those reasons are as good as any, they pale in comparison to what we need most now: To feel human again.
After months of shut-down, even the most couch-bound among us have found reasons to get outside, just to move. While calorie burning is a nice side effect, physical activity also helps us feel empowered and fully present.
Exercise provides instant gratification, says psychologist Dr. Mitchell Greene, who works with athletes on mental health and performance strategies, and is affiliated with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “You get the benefits of an endorphin and dopamine release and the sense that you can control something when so much is out of control,” he says.
You don’t need a strict regimen or defined fitness goals to be motivated to move. Here are four ways that physical exercise can help you feel more alive right now:
1. Fights Social Isolation
Being isolated from other people doesn’t just take an emotional toll; it carries a tangible health risk as well—and has been shown to be as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to an analysis by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., at Brigham Young University.
To get the emotional and psychological benefit of exercise, take your movement outdoors. Safe, socially distanced walks or bike rides—with a friend, family member, or even on your own—help you feel reconnected to the world. Engaging with and being around other people gives you the evidence that you’re not alone in the world and part of a larger community.
2. Go From Being Around Your Family to Being With Them
Months of work from home and homeschooling can take a toll on your family’s patience and mood. But while parallel play on individual devices may have become the default, some screen-free family time can boost energy and harmony—whether that’s playing a game outside, gardening, or even cleaning out the garage. “One of the silver linings right now is that people are out doing more things with their kids,” Greene says. He suggests reframing exercise as a way to multi-task: a time to bond with your brood while getting moving.
3. Let Nature Work Its Magic
The growing field of ecotherapy, which focuses on the healing power of nature, has shown that trees provide more than a nice backdrop. In 2015, researchers compared the brain activity in healthy people after they walked in an urban setting versus a natural one; the latter group had less activity in their prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain active in rumination.
So give yourself a full-body nature hit: Get to the park, the woods, or the nearest patch of trees to temper your anxiety—and engage all your senses as you do: Take in the beauty of your surroundings, the smell of grass and flowers, the sound of leaves and lawnmowers and birds, and you’ll return home that much calmer.
4. Shed the Perfection Lens
This year has tested even the most disciplined and routine-centered among us, and given us a chance to let go of old expectations—that goes for exercise, too. “It’s a time to get away from an all-or-nothing attitude,” Greene says, “the idea that, if I’m not all in, it’s no good.”
There’s a “cascade effect” when it comes to exercise, says Greene: Even the act of getting dressed, putting on shoes, and walking around the block or completing a yoga pose can make us feel more in control of our surroundings and our bodies. You don’t have to run a 5K in record time or master a headstand; you can simply go out to break a sweat or hold plank pose 30 seconds longer today. No act is too minor—and the upside is well worth it.