For decades, the relationship between exercise and mental health has been a hot topic for clinicians and researchers.
Nowadays, we know for a fact that regular physical activity is one of the leading factors contributing to robust physical and mental health.
But, even though exercise can significantly improve your overall sense of health and well-being, it’s not always easy to leave the comfort of your couch and go outside for a quick jog.
Perhaps it would be wiser to start by understanding how exercise impacts mental health. That way, you will be inspired to learn new ways to overcome the obstacles that prevent you from adopting an active lifestyle.
Exercise and Mental Health: What’s the Connection?
You’ve probably heard the expression “mens sana in corpore sano.” It’s an old Latin saying that means “a healthy mind in a healthy body.”
It seems that throughout the centuries, the mind-body connection has been a topic of interest for numerous scholars and researchers from all over the world.
Today, anyone can agree that one of the secrets to a healthy mind is being mindful of your physical health. And what better way to keep your body in tip-top shape than by exercising regularly?
Did you know that physical activity can even have a direct positive impact on your mental health? Exercise can generate significant changes in the brain which translate to increased health and well-being.
Why is Exercise Important?
Everyone has come across blogs and articles that emphasize the role of physical activity in mental health at some point. The fact is that, exercise may be the cheapest and most accessible strategy for boosting your overall health.
The Effects of Exercise
A recent paper, published in Maturitas, highlights several crucial benefits that exercise can have for mental health. More specifically, regular physical activity:
- Improves anxiety, stress, and depression
- Reduces inflammation
- Improves physiological, psychological, and immunological functions
Based on the conclusions from this scientific paper, there’s no doubt that exercise has some fantastic effects on the human mind and body. And that’s just a fraction of what exercise can do for your health and well-being.
Benefits of Physical Activity
As many experts suggest; exercise is a cheap, effective, and natural intervention that can significantly improve your mental health.
According to the American Psychological Association, there are plenty of reasons why you should add physical activity to your daily routine.
Let’s go over the main ones. Exercise:
- Is a natural mood enhancer
- Has a protective effect on the brain
- Can normalize sleep
- Improves blood-sugar control
- Helps you fend off depression and anxiety
- Makes you feel good
- Improves self-esteem and cognitive function
Aside from all these amazing benefits; did you know that exercise can also change the chemistry of your brain?
Exercise and Endorphins
Whenever experts discuss the relationship between physical activity and mental health, they often mention endorphins.
What are Endorphins?
To give you the textbook definition, the term “endorphin” is a generic term referring to the three families of endogenous opioid peptides: the enkephalins, dynorphins, and beta-endorphins.
In plain English, endorphins are a group of neurotransmitters that help our nervous systems deal with pain and stress. Often called the “happiness molecules,” endorphins act as pain relievers, generating a state of joy.
What Do Endorphins Do?
In the context of mental health, experts believe that endorphins can ease depression, anxiety, and stress. The best part is that the brain releases these neurotransmitters after just half an hour of moderate physical activity.
In fact, if you go outside for a jog right now, your body will begin to release serotonin and endorphins which will translate to a state of inner calm. Any sensation of dread, tension, or apathy will vanish in no time. Another effective, and pleasant, way to benefit from a quick endorphin release is through sex.
Unfortunately, the positive effects generated by this group of neurotransmitters don’t last longer than one or two hours. That means you’ll need to look for additional ways to cope with the unpleasant symptoms of depression or anxiety.
How Can Exercise Benefit You Mentally?
According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people suffer from depression. Add another 275 million people who suffer from various forms of anxiety to the equation, and we have a total of over half a billion people living with a serious mental health problem.
Given these worrying numbers, researchers and clinicians are always looking for strategies to combat problems like depression, stress, or anxiety.
Exercise and Anxiety
Did you know that one of the easiest (and quickest) ways to get a handle on unsettling thoughts is by doing a bit of light exercise? A quick jog around the neighborhood or half an hour of gym workouts is enough to put you in a good mood. It will also make you forget about all the irrational worries that drain your energy and keep you from enjoying your day-to-day life.
A 2017 meta-analysis, published in Psychiatry Research, revealed that exercise could relieve anxiety in people who struggle with anxiety and stress-related disorders.
Natural Anti-Anxiety Remedies
Aside from getting regular physical activity, there are numerous ways in which you could cope with anxiety without medication or therapy.
Are you someone who tends to worry about every little thing that might go wrong and do you struggle getting enough sleep along with constantly feeling restless? If your answer is yes, you’re most likely dealing with a form of anxiety.
In recent years, both clinicians and people like you and me have begun to show a keen interest in alternative and natural remedies for anxiety.
One quick way to relieve anxiety is through breathing. More specifically, breathing exercises that help you relax and take your mind off those troubling thoughts. From deep breathing exercises to equal breathing, there are plenty of options if you wish to give it a try.
Another excellent practice for keeping anxiety in check is yoga. By combining physical movement, breathing exercises, and various body poses; yoga helps you build physical and mental resilience.
Exercise and Depression
Exercise can significantly improve the mood of people who struggle with depression.
According to a 2016 study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, moderate intensity and high-intensity exercises can have a significantly positive impact on depression.
When you’re dealing with depression, leaving the comfort of your home and going out for a healthy jog might prove to be extremely challenging. One of the unpleasant truths about this mood disorder is that it drains your motivation which generates a state of idleness.
That’s why, when it comes to depression, you need to keep in mind that anything is better than nothing. In other words, if the best you can do is five push-ups, then stick to that goal and work your way up from there.
In this regard, taking the “baby steps” approach and scoring small victories is better than striving to commit to a difficult exercise goal; setting yourself up for failure and disappointment from the start.
Natural Mood Stabilizers
Although it might sound a bit farfetched, some experts believe that cold water swimming might be a viable replacement for antidepressants.
Christopher Van Tulleken, a doctor and researcher at University College London, explains it with the following words: “If you adapt to cold water, you also blunt your stress response to other daily stresses such as road rage, exams or getting fired at work.”
Long story short, this activity can help you stabilize your mood by preventing stress from throwing you down the never-ending spiral of disappointment and worry that characterizes depression.
Other good examples of natural mood stabilizers are outdoor activities such as walking, running, or gardening. Since depression is (in part) the result of a vitamin D deficiency, any activity that exposes you to sunlight can help to replenish this crucial vitamin and keep depressive episodes at bay.
Which Types of Exercise are Best?
Now that we know how important exercise is for mental health, let’s look at some activities that can boost your overall sense of well-being.
Here are several types of exercise that will improve your health and keep problems like depression, stress, and anxiety in check:
- Nature walks
- Light cardio workouts
- Thai Chi
Do any of these activities sound interesting? Because they sure can boost your health and well-being.
Regular Exercise: Why Can’t I Commit?
Alright, so regular physical activity is a natural “mood stabilizer” and “health enhancer.” But if it’s so affordable and efficient, why don’t we see more people getting physically active?
Truth be told, implementing a regular exercise routine is not as easy as it sounds. This is especially true if you’re under a lot of stress from work or if you are having personal problems.
When you’re feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, or hopeless (and you’re on the brink of a total mental breakdown) exercising might be the last thing on your mind.
Moreover, there are people who might be dealing with disabilities, geriatric conditions, or severe weight problems. For them, going to the gym or out for a jog is clearly out of the question. But the sad part is that some of them might not realize that even taking a quick walk to the nearest store or tending the garden counts as physical activity.
If you find yourself in this situation, remember that when it comes to staying physically active to preserve and strengthen your mental health, anything is better than nothing.
Tips for Staying Motivated
There are plenty of reasons why you should add exercise to your daily to-do list. From improving sleep and reducing inflammation to keeping stress and depression at bay, exercise may just be the best natural “health enhancer.”
But how can we turn physical activity into something fun and enjoyable that keeps us off the couch?
Focus On the Activities You Enjoy
There’s no point in forcing yourself to run a marathon if the mere thought of running is enough to make you say, “no thanks.”
Just because some types of exercise are more effective than others doesn’t mean you should start doing them regardless of your preferences.
If you wish to turn exercising into a habit, start by choosing activities that you enjoy. That way, you will feel motivated to get active and stay active.
One of the reasons why people quit after just a couple of workouts is because they often tend to push themselves too hard.
But just because you push yourself to the point where your body is screaming “Stop!” doesn’t mean you’ll get better results. On the contrary, there’s a good chance you might not step foot into a gym again for a very long time.
Ignore the guy/girl who’s dead-lifting 150 lbs. and exercise at your own pace instead.
Don’t Over-Do It
Some of us think that being physically active means hitting the gym five times a week and partaking in all sorts of marathons, ultra-marathons, triathlons, and other “superhuman” races.
Once again, it’s all about exercising at a comfortable pace. Take it slow and focus on consistency.
Soon enough, half an hour of running or gym workouts will feel like a walk in the park. You just have to be patient and not over-do it.
Make Exercise a Social Affair
It can be quite hard to push yourself to run that extra mile when there’s no one there to cheer for you. That’s why many people who wish to become more physically active join all sorts of online groups.
Another excellent way to make exercise a social affair is by partaking in team sports like soccer, basketball, paintball, or tennis.
Or maybe you can convince some friends to join you for a pleasant jog in the park or an exciting mountain hike.
All work and no play can drain your motivation in no time.
If you haven’t gotten to the point where exercising is a pleasant activity, you need to find a way to reward yourself for every workout.
It could be anything from listening to your favorite tunes to having a delicious fruit. In case you plan on using food as a reward, make sure you choose healthy snacks. Otherwise, you end up rewarding a healthy habit with an unhealthy snack.
The Magnificent Benefits of Exercise for Mood and Mind
Overall, it seems like exercise and mental health can be a perfect mix, as long as you go for activities that you enjoy.
Pace yourself, make it interesting, find a group that shares your interests, and don’t forget to reward yourself.
After just a few weeks, you will notice significant improvements in your overall sense of health and well-being.
- K. Mikkelsen, L. Stojanovska, M. Polenakovic, M. Bosevski and V. Apostolopoulos, “Exercise and mental health,” Maturitas, vol. 106, pp. 48-56, 2017.
- A. Sharma, V. Madaan and F. D. Petty, “Exercise for Mental Health,” Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, vol. 8, no. 2, 2006.
- K. Weir, “The exercise effect,” American Psychological Association, December 2011. [Online]. Available: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/exercise.
- Y. Sharav and R. Benoliel, “Chapter 15 – Pharmacotherapy of acute orofacial pain,” in Orofacial Pain and Headache, Mosby, 2008, pp. 349-376.
- “Depression,” World Health Organization, 22 March 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression.
- H. Ritchie and M. Roser, “Mental Health,” OurWorldInData.org, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health.
- B. Stubbs, D. Vancampfort, S. Rosenbaum, J. Firth, T. Cosco, N. Veronese, G. A. Salum and F. B. Schuch, “An examination of the anxiolytic effects of exercise for people with anxiety and stress-related disorders: A meta-analysis,” Psychiatry Research, vol. 249, pp. 102-108, 2017.
- R. Balchin, J. Linde, D. Blackhurst, H. L. Rauch and G. Schönbächler, “Sweating away depression? The impact of intensive exercise on depression,” Journal of Affective Disorders, vol. 200, pp. 218-221, 2016.
- C. van Tulleken, M. Tipton, H. Massey and M. C. Harper, “Open water swimming as a treatment for major depressive disorder,” BMJ Case Reports, 2018.
- L. Liverpool, “Could cold water swimming help treat depression?,” The Guardian, 13 September 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2018/sep/13/could-cold-water-swimming-help-treat-depression.
- S. Penckofer, J. Kouba and C. E. Ferrans, “Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine?,” Issues in mental health nursing, vol. 31, no. 6, pp. 385-393, 2010.
- L. Robinson, H. Segal and M. Smith, “The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise,” HelpGuide.org, November 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-health-benefits-of-exercise.htm/.