Often, the hardest part about exercise is summoning the motivation in the first place. However, this initial effort is hugely outweighed by the positivity we feel following a good workout. Why? Physical activity is great at stimulating our brains in amazing ways!

For the most part, when we think about exercise, we think about keeping our body healthy and strong. But a lot of people gravitate towards fitness because of its mental benefits. In fact, there’s a science behind the high we feel after a great workout.

When our heart rate rises, so does our blood flow. This increase helps bring more oxygenated blood into the brain, depositing important nutrients, promoting the growth of new neurons and releasing a number of beneficial proteins.

You’ve probably heard about endorphins, the small but mighty transmitters that help our brains produce pleasure. Exercise helps stimulate these chemicals in the same way that biting into a cookie or laughing with friends would. Often, the more you move, the better you’ll feel. Medical experts agree that exercise can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety while amplifying feelings of happiness and self-esteem. But while all exercise helps stimulate the brain, there are a few workouts that tap into our mental wellness on an even deeper level.

Whether you’re looking to shake it out or find a moment of peaceful solitude, here are the best ways to exercise with your mental health in mind.

Dance

Looking for a fun way to get your heart pumping? Dance is a workout that perfectly combines physical activity with creativity!

Dance is great for your body, improving muscle tone, endurance and flexibility. But physical benefits aside, it’s also a fantastic exercise for the brain and a great way to de-stress after a busy week.

Learning a new dance routine will help train your memory and improve your concentration skills. In fact, many studies show that dance can help with cognitive decline as we age. So don’t leave the dancing to the kids… join a class and reap those brain-boosting benefits!

Across history, dance has been used as a way to express emotion in a healthy and cathartic way. It provides an opportunity to let go, laugh and move your body in new ways.

Another benefit is its social aspect. Feelings of loneliness can have a huge impact on our mental health, increasing anxiety and even depression. A lot of fitness classes are filled with people, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re getting much interaction. Dance is often dependent on collaboration, forcing people to come together and trust one another. This creates a wonderful sense of community and opens the door to meeting new people.

Still unsure? It’s been said that joy is often right on the other side of our comfort zone, so why not try something different? Switch up your regular routine and dance things out to a great song. You’ll connect with new people in a supportive atmosphere, inspiring newfound confidence and self-esteem.

Centre Pointe Dance Studio offers ballet, hip-hop and tap classes for adults multiple times a week, and each class is specially customised to fit all abilities.


Yoga

The practise of yoga dates back thousands of years. We know that it’s great for our physical wellness, restoring our bodies and improving our flexibility, balance and strength. But the main exercise that yoga offers is actually for the mind.

Why do we feel so much better after a yoga session? Let’s take a look at the science first. According to Harvard Health, yoga may elevate levels of a brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric (GABA), which is associated with a better mood and decreased anxiety. Completing even one yoga class a week may help maintain these chemical levels and, therefore, diminish depressive thoughts and symptoms. Stress and anxiety can generate the release of cortisol and adrenaline in the body, increasing your heart rate and activating a fight-or-flight response. Your body does this for a reason, and in cases of rare, legitimate danger, this is a critical reaction. However, when we experience prolonged anxiety and our stress levels remain high over an extended period, the consistent outputs of cortisol and adrenaline can wreak havoc on our bodies.

Thankfully, yoga can help us control these physical responses. The foundation of yoga is built around the breath. These slow and steady inhalations and exhalations help activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body, decreasing anxiety and racing thoughts.

As we dedicate more time to our relationship with our breath, activity in our limbic system will also reduce. This is the part of our brain responsible for emotional reactivity. By incorporating yoga and meditation into our routine, we can help ensure a calmer and more controlled response when faced with intrusive thoughts or stressful situations.

As we age, yoga can also help protect us from injury and even improve our brain function. According to Harvard Health, yoga can help strengthen the part of our brain that plays a key role in memory, attention, awareness, thought and language.

Studies using MRI scans and other brain imaging technology revealed that people who regularly participated in yoga had a thicker cerebral cortex and hippocampus than those who didn’t. These are the areas of the brain dedicated to learning, memory and information processing.

The combination of physical postures, measured breathing and deep meditation create a holistic practice that goes beyond a physical workout.

One of Grand Cayman’s newest yoga studios, One Heart Yoga Apothecary, focuses on that balance between the physical and mental practice, emphasising the importance of staying rooted in the present instead of the future or past. They utilise all of the eight limbs of yoga, but especially Yoga Asana, which prepares the body to work towards meditation and mindfulness.


Spin

For some people, working out in a traditional gym setting can be a great source of anxiety, especially for those already struggling with mental health issues or self-confidence.

Bright, crowded fitness classes can be intimidating, which is why spin can provide a great alternative. These sessions are often carried out in darkened rooms. You find your stationary bike, look towards the spotlight of your instructor and get ready to pedal it out in an uplifting space.

Spin classes allow you to engage in group fitness while also bringing the focus back to yourself. Each session is made up of repetitive motions that help you sink into the workout, clearing your mind of any stressors until you’re ruled by the rhythm. You’re free to focus on self-improvement, working towards better stamina and higher levels of endurance at your own pace.

Even though you’re pedalling into the dark, you’re not alone. Many people have described the incredible energy that comes from spinning in a crowd. The camaraderie and euphoric feeling is contagious, and you’ll leave the room on a collective high.

The cardio work helps promote cardiovascular health and releases feel-good chemicals and hormones like endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, reducing anxiety and producing feelings of motivation and accomplishment.

Spinning is also a great way to help synchronise your circadian rhythm. When your mental health is suffering, it can be hard to develop a proper sleep schedule. Sleep issues are actually one of the most common symptoms of anxiety and can create a pattern of restlessness in the evenings and fatigue during the day. A regular spin routine will help your body adjust and recover. Try spinning once a week and if you see the benefits, consider moving up to three to five one-hour sessions a week to help with your physical and mental health.

Last but not least, at the heart of spinning is the music. Music is an instant mood booster that’s proven to help with stress and spin classes are known for their uplifting, positive playlists. Love a certain style of music? Look for themed rides that focus on a specific artist or genre like EDM, reggaeton, the best of the 90s, hip-hop and more! At VITAL Spinbar & Yogaden, there are plenty of classes that let you pedal off the calories to your favourite beats!


Walking

We’ve discussed many exciting options, but at the end of the day, even a quick daily walk can lead to significant mental health improvements. Walking is great because it’s easily accessible. It doesn’t require any special equipment or come with any costs, and it’s something that people of all ages, body types and fitness levels can enjoy.

Try to plan dedicated walks at least three times a week. We recommend aiming for 30-45 minutes of walking or around two miles. If you can only squeeze in a 15-minute walk on some days, that’s totally fine! The key is consistency. A fitness watch or smartphone can help you keep track of your steps and document your favourite routes.

Take a look at your current schedule and figure out the best times to get outside. If you work from home, consider using a part of your lunch break to take a quick walk around the block. If you’re at the office, why not end the day with a sunset beach walk? Go alone and listen to your favourite music or bring a friend and chat about your week. These walks will help soothe any negative thoughts, refresh your mind and provide you with some mental clarity.

Walking outdoors can be especially effective at warding off anxiety, depression or low self-esteem. Mindful walking — or meditation in movement — is a great technique to adopt if you're having trouble focusing on the present moment. Whilst on your stroll, maintain an awareness of your footsteps, the movement of muscles in your body and the way your arms swing as you walk. Hear the wind blow, smell the sea air and feel the touch of sun on your face. Count five things you can see, hear and touch. The physical and mental benefits of mindful walking are far-reaching.

We are lucky to live on a beautiful island with many hours of sunshine and long stretches of beachfront. Head out to Barkers National Park and take in the stunning casuarina and seagrape trees. You can even spot various types of marine life in the shallows.

Have a longer walk in mind? Head out to Breakers and check out the Mastic Trail, a 2.3-mile footpath through mangrove wetland, ancient dry forest and rare trees that are often found only within the island's undisturbed interior. Keep an eye out for Cayman's native parrot, lizards, frogs, large hermit crabs and a shy agouti or two!

Walking is a great compliment to many other forms of exercise and creating a regular walking routine can help ease you into other areas of fitness! You'll have a great foundation to build up to spinning, yoga and dance, or even transition into running.

Whatever you choose, we ask that you treat your body with kindness, patience and love. Don't forget that this includes prioritising your mental health too! The key to success is finding an exercise that works for every part of you!