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Exercise and Mental Health: The Perfect Combination!

The treatment of mental illness has evolved drastically over the past century. Maladies that were once misunderstood as anything from simple laziness to demonic possession now have scientific names and cures. Therapy and medication, among other treatments, have saved millions of lives. But is it possible that one of the most effective treatments has been in front of us for far longer? Recently, research has begun to uncover the importance of exercise and mental health; and in particular, depression and anxiety.

Exercise and Mental Health: What’s the Connection?

While we tend to talk about mind and body as separate things, the field of psychology understands that the two are inextricably connected. This is, after all, why medication can treat mental illness. On a simpler level, we all understand that emotions correspond to physical feelings. Anxiety can feel like butterflies in the stomach. Sadness can feel like a heavy weight on the chest.

Thus, it is not that surprising that exercise and mental health are connected. Exercise is crucial for maintaining physical health, and it is not much of a jump to the conjecture that physical health and mental health could affect each other. Multiple studies that explore the link between exercise and mental health have therefore been carried out. Interestingly, the results have consistently shown that exercise can be an effective treatment for certain mental health conditions.

Why is Exercise Important?

The connection between exercise and mental health may be a relatively new development, but humans have long known how important exercise is in general. Let’s explore why that is.

The Effects of Exercise

At its core, there is nothing wrong with the way we live in urban areas. Reductionists often argue that sitting down, looking at screens all day is a less than ideal way to live. But what we’re doing in front of those screens is important, even if a time traveler from the past might struggle to understand it.

The problem is that humans have not lived this way for very long at all. Our bodies are not adapted to this physically sedentary lifestyle. Lack of physical activity therefore leads to all sorts of ailments including obesity, diabetes, and mental illness.

While this is not a reason to abandon our lifestyles, we do need to make adjustments. Regular exercise can balance your lifestyle, allowing you to do your important jobs more effectively without compromising your health.

Benefits of Physical Activity

Physical activity has tremendous benefits to every aspect of our physical and mental health. The benefits of physical activity include:

  • Weight reduction and maintenance
  • Improved sleep
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Stress relief
  • Increased libido
  • Improved mood
  • A decrease in anxiety
  • Increased alertness
  • Improved cholesterol levels
  • Better cardiovascular health

Exercise and Endorphins

In conversation about exercise and mental health, you’ll often hear the term “endorphins.” But what exactly are endorphins and how do they improve your mental health?

What are Endorphins?

Endorphins are chemicals manufactured in your brain, spinal cord, and other parts of your body, which interact with the brain receptors that reduce your perception of pain. They bind to the same receptors as some pain medications, but do not have the addictive properties of these substances. Endorphins are released by your body when you exercise.

What Do Endorphins Do?

Endorphins trigger positive feelings in your body which are comparable to those caused by morphine. They also act as analgesics, reducing your perception of pain; and sedatives, calming your body and mind. They can therefore help to reduce stress, and relieve some of the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

How Can Exercise Benefit You Mentally?

The release of endorphins explains how exercise can benefit you in the short term. If you’re feeling light depression or anxiety (or day-to-day stress) exercise will give you an immediate boost. However, this does not explain how exercise benefits you in the long term. Research shows that the effects of exercise are not only beneficial directly after the activity, but can reduce chronic anxiety and depression.

There are a number of theories regarding why exercise benefits you mentally. It is clear that exercise directly affects the brain, even increasing the volume of certain brain regions. This may be due to better blood supply which improves the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the neurons. It also seems to improve the health of the hippocampus, which is important for mental health.

Regardless of the reasons, more and more evidence shows how exercise benefits you mentally. Studies suggest that it improves self-esteem, sense of well-being, and energy. It also decreases levels of depression and anxiety.

Exercise and Mental Health

Exercise and Anxiety

Tens of millions of Americans suffer from anxiety on a daily basis. Everyone experiences some anxiety, and it serves an important evolutionary purpose. However, at levels at which it affects normal functioning, it is no longer helpful.

There are a number of effective anxiety treatments, including therapy and medication. Exercise offers an alternative that is free of charge and has no side-effects. It can be used as the sole treatment, or as part of a holistic treatment regimen.

Natural Anti-Anxiety Remedies

Many people are hesitant to use prescription anti-anxiety medication and opt for natural remedies instead. These include meditation and mindfulness, writing and other types of creative expression, and relaxation exercises. They also include certain natural supplements, such as herbal teas, vitamins, and the like. A healthy diet can also improve your resistance to anxiety.

These remedies work to varying extents. Lifestyle improvements are always helpful, while the effects of supplements that have not been researched is up for debate.

Exercise is a natural anti-anxiety remedy that has been researched. It works even without the help of prescription medication. Exercise becomes part of a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle, and is beneficial beyond the anti-anxiety effects. It can increase your self-esteem and confidence, which in itself helps to reduce anxiety.

Exercise and Depression

In addition to its benefits for anxiety, exercise has been shown to be an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression. Millions of Americans suffer from clinical depression, and not everyone responds to therapy and medication. Others may be looking for a natural remedy. Even those who are receiving other forms of treatment will benefit from exercise, which is why it is generally a part of programs in good depression wards. In fact, regular exercise is recommended by psychiatrists and psychologists alike.

Natural Mood Stabilizers

There are a number of effective natural mood stabilizers. These include lifestyle improvements, with meditation and mindfulness, as well as relaxation techniques; being useful additions to the daily life of just about everyone. Writing, playing music, art, and the like, also help regulate emotions and reduce depression.

So too, there are a number of supplements recommended by varying sources which may help, but do not necessarily have scientific backing.

As we’ve mentioned, exercise immediately provides a mood boost, due to the release of endorphins. In the long term, studies suggest that exercise may be as effective in treating mild to moderate depression as antidepressants. While a one-size-fits-all approach is rarely wise in treating mental health, exercise is definitely beneficial, whether as the sole treatment or as part of a treatment regimen.

Which Types of Exercise are Best?

Most exercises are beneficial physically and mentally, but for the best results, there are certain goals that should be met. Start with what you think you can handle, but try to work your way up to at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, five times a week. You don’t need to be out of breath or feel like you’re going to collapse. Rather, you should be breathing a little heavier than normal and feel warmer and somewhat sweaty.

The following types of moderate exercises can improve mental health.

  • Brisk walks in nature
  • Running, especially outdoors
  • Bike riding or spinning
  • Yoga, which helps balance and relax you along with giving you a good workout
  • Boxing, which can give you an outlet to release stress and anger
  • Resistance training, which can help you build muscles to give you more confidence in your body’s capabilities and boost your self-esteem

Regular Exercise: Why Can’t I Commit?

Perhaps the biggest issue with using exercise as a treatment for mental illness is that people typically struggle to commit or stay committed. Even those who at one time have a balanced, consistent fitness regimen, may at other times find it difficult to even exercise at all. You can see this play out in gyms in the first months of every year, as people flock to fulfill their new year’s resolutions. In a matter of weeks, the crowds thin out until the status quo returns.

But why should this be the case? If exercise gives you an endorphin hit, and improves your mental health for the long term, why do we struggle to motivate ourselves?

The unfortunate reality is that, as great as it feels to exercise every day, it is also very difficult. During periods in which life becomes more stressful, it becomes all the more difficult to find the energy you need to get up and exercise. Even if that is exactly what would help most. Changing seasons can also have an impact, as a pleasant morning run in the summer can feel like a special kind of torture when winter comes around.

Furthermore, the ideal exercise routine can be disrupted by illness and injury. Even once you’ve recovered, you may be demotivated by the setback and find it hard to commit. The most problematic issue is, however, that depression and anxiety tend to drain motivation.

This is one of the reasons why the link between exercise and mental health is generally investigated in sufferers of mild to moderate depression and anxiety.

Tips for Staying Motivated

If you want to begin exercising to improve your mental health, these tips for getting and staying motivated can help.

Focus On the Activities You Enjoy

Often, when people consider starting to exercise, they see it as something they’ll do begrudgingly. They think they’ll hate it, but may benefit anyway. However, you’re far more likely to be motivated to do exercise that you actually enjoy.

If you hate running but enjoy cycling, do the latter. Do you love being outdoors? Find an activity that you can do outdoors. If you have always wanted bigger muscles, make sure to include some weight training and enjoy the benefits.

Get Comfortable

Whatever activities you choose, make sure you are going to be comfortable doing them. A challenge is great, but that doesn’t mean every aspect of your workout has to be challenging. You don’t need to work out at the crack of dawn if you hate getting up that early. If you know weather conditions will be an issue, exercise in a gym, where the climate is controlled.

Don’t Over-Do It

Start with something that is manageable and don’t try to push yourself too soon. By pushing yourself too hard, you may end up overdoing it and getting injured. Injuries can derail the best of intentions and make it harder than ever to begin exercising again.

Make Exercise a Social Affair

By exercising with friends, or even with an online community, exercise can give you the social activity you’re craving. It also helps you to stay motivated, as your friends push you to be consistent and you foster a sense of healthy competition.

Reward Yourself

Finally, the most direct way to get motivated is to reward yourself. Find healthy incentives for meeting your commitments. Then, even at the toughest point of your session, you’ll have something to look forward to, pushing you to see it through.

The Magnificent Benefits of Exercise for Mood and Mind

The benefits of exercise for mood and mind are truly remarkable. Exercise can be the ideal treatment for mental illness, as it is good for your body and mind, has no negative side effects, and keeps you healthy. It contributes to a balanced lifestyle.

Exercise and mental health are inextricably linked. Not only do you feel great during and after your workout, but you experience an improvement of mood, among other benefits, in the long term. Ideally, it should be part of a balanced mental health and wellness regimen, so that injury or similar challenges do not derail your progress.

About The Author Joshua Marcus

Joshua Marcus is a South African freelance writer in the mental health niche and founder of TheEmpathyHub.com. Having both studied psychology and battled his own depression, he is passionate about spreading awareness of mental illness and its treatment. He is currently traveling through South-East Asia with his husband, Kyle.