The Social and Emotional Benefits of Physical Activity

By Guest Blogger Kayla Mantegazza, WellMASS Program Coordinator

A few weeks ago, I visited the Department of Public Health’s Hinton State Laboratory in Jamaica Plain to participate in a Boot Camp fitness class organized by the State Lab’s Wellness Champion, Jacki Dooley.  Thanks to Jacki’s efforts, State Lab employees have the opportunity to participate in group fitness classes during their lunch breaks, which gives them an opportunity to step away from their desks and make time in their busy schedules for physical activity.  I was lucky enough to have chosen a sunny, mild day to channel my inner G.I Jane, so we were able to move the class outside and enjoy the beautiful weather.  The format of the class was very personalized and laid back.  Participants were encouraged to perform exercises at their own pace, make modifications if necessary, and take frequent water breaks.  The instructor of the class, Remy Isdaner from Soma Wellness, led us through bodyweight circuits for all of the major muscle groups such as jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, planks, and yoga poses for stretching and balance.  We also jogged a lap around the parking lot between each circuit to keep our heart rates elevated.

Aside from getting a great workout in a comfortable setting where each of us received individualized attention, my favorite part of the Boot Camp class was the camaraderie between employees.  Everyone in attendance was encouraging and supportive of one another, and several people even asked about participants who were absent from that week’s class to make sure they were okay.  For fitness novices who feel intimidated by the concept of group exercise classes because they are nervous about keeping up with their peers, this class proved the contrary.  The group setting provided us with more social support and reinforcement than we would have gotten by exercising by ourselves (or not at all!), which benefitted both our physical and mental wellbeing.

Speaking of mental wellbeing, the mental health benefits of physical activity are often overlooked.  For those of us who shed a tear at the sight of a treadmill, exercise may sound more stress-inducing than stress-reducing.  However, aerobic exercise has been shown to improve blood circulation to the brain, which may help decrease anxiety and depression.   Exercise also triggers the release of endorphins, which improve mood and in turn reduce the likelihood of turning to food for comfort.  Studies show that aerobic exercise also improves quality of sleep,  and that people who exercise are less likely to feel daytime sleepiness and more likely to report an increase in vitality.  Increased mental sharpness during periods of stress is especially valuable in the workplace.

As if those benefits weren’t enticing enough to get you out of your seat, physical activity provides an outlet for social interaction and support.  Whether you join a group fitness class or simply recruit a friend to take a walk around your building during lunch, being physically active in a community setting presents opportunities to meet people with common interests who can hold you accountable for sticking to your routine.  Being able to take a mental break from your work day to exercise with co-workers also fosters a cooperative, positive, and team-oriented work environment.  Therefore, physical activity isn’t just beneficial to the mental health of the participant, but to the overall climate of the workplace as well.

If you would like to learn more about the Boot Camp class at the State Lab or you would like some suggestions on how to set up group fitness classes at your agency, send me an email at kayla.mantegazza@state.ma.us.

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