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Mariana Plata

How Exercise Can Boost Your Mental Health

Zumba's "Before and After Project" visually explains this connection.

Photo by Danielle Cerullo on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Danielle Cerullo on Unsplash

​​​​​​The mind and body connection is real, and the research that backs up the relationship between exercise and mental health is extensive. A study published in the journal Maturitas found that "exercise improves anxiety, stress, and depression; it improves physiological and immunological functions." Another study, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, "shed further light on the importance of remaining physically active in times of stress." Its findings suggest that stress decreases significantly when we remain physically active. In that same journal, a study presented earlier this year found that mental contrasting can be a big factor to help maintain these efforts to stay physically active.

Staying physically healthy—understanding that there might be certain medical illnesses that can prevent us from fully embracing this—can boost our spirits and our mood. There's not only a sense of accomplishment that invades us when we've worked out; exercise also triggers the release of powerful neurochemicals—like endorphins, serotonin, and norepinephrine—which lead to a more positive mood (happiness) and that can reduce anxiety and stress. Now, we have a visual way of seeing this effect.

Zumba, the world-renowned dance program, created the "Before and After Project, a photojournalism series that illustrates the positive effects of exercise on mental health, overall wellness, and an increase in feelings of happiness as a way to raise awareness about World Mental Health Day (Oct. 10). In it, New York-based photographer Raven B. Varona captured how Zumba participants felt before and after their dancing session. The objective of this photojournalism series is to steer away from the traditional weight-loss objective of exercise and to "depict how one feels rather than looks."

"Before and After" Series

“When I saw Zumba for the first time, the thing that struck me the most was that everybody was smiling,” says Zumba CEO Alberto Perlman. “Happiness seemed to be the objective of the workout, with fitness as the result. Years later, I started hearing how Zumba was turning lives around and helping people get through hard times, or mental illnesses including anxiety, postpartum depression, and PTSD. It’s truly unbelievable the way we are seeing the Zumba movement positively impact people in our communities.”

Some of the "before and after" photos in the series include the following:

Raven B. Varona, used with permission.
Source: Raven B. Varona, used with permission.
Raven B. Varona, used with permission.
Source: Raven B. Varona, used with permission.
Raven B. Varona, used with permission.
Source: Raven B. Varona, used with permission.
Raven B. Varona, used with permission.
Source: Raven B. Varona, used with permission.

​​​​​​“After dedicating much of my research over the last decade to the science of happiness and resilience, I was not surprised to learn of the positive impact of Zumba on mental health,” says happiness expert and positive psychology researcher Michelle Gielan. “It's an excellent workout to fuel happiness as it combines exercise, social support, and a positive environment, unlike other workouts and group exercise regimens that often lack one or more of these key elements.”

It is through initiatives such as this one that researchers, fitness advocates, and wellness companies are able to make the mental health conversation more approachable and open for everyone. Whether it's Zumba, dancing, running, or whatever form of movement floats your boat, embrace the physically active life. You might just find that positive mental health consequences follow.

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