exercise and mental health

Exercise and Mental Health: Creating a Healthier Life

Numerous studies have shown exercise improves mental health. One, in particular, found that participants had three to four poor mental health days a month relating to stress, depression, or emotional concerns. Among the participants who started exercising, the number of poor mental health days dropped by 40%.

Exercise can be seen as a medicine for good health. It’s simple, free, and can lead to a healthier life.

You may think you don’t have time to exercise or are too exhausted to exercise. That’s okay. You’re not alone. Many people feel this way. That’s why it’s essential to change your definition of exercise. It doesn’t have to mean practicing for a marathon or hitting the gym to lift weights. You don’t have to spend hours on a treadmill or joining a spin class.

Exercise can include gardening, childcare, housework, raking leaves, washing your car, dancing, and walking stairs are examples of exercise. If it gets your heart beating faster, it counts as exercise.

Exercise, even a small amount a day, offers huge mental health benefits. Reports claim if you get between 30 and 60 minutes of exercise a day for three to five days a week, you will receive the most significant mental rewards.

There is a process that takes place in the brain when you exercise that improves mental health.

Exercise, the Brain, and Depression

When you exercise, neurotransmitters are released into the brain. Endorphins are usually associated with exercise when people talk about feeling euphoric after exercising. However, there are many other neurotransmitters boosted in the brain when you exercise. Serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are a few more examples. 

Not only is your mood boosted when these chemicals are released, but it improves your overall wellbeing. You get better sleep, your appetite improves, your memory improves, you can stay focused on a task, and you feel happier.

Exercise, Hormones, and Anxiety

Exercise literally changes your brain for the better. It can balance hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, reducing inflammation in the body. Hormones like these are responsible for the flight-or-fight response associated with anxiety. Often, when people have sensations of flight-or-fight, they may experience increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and heavy sweating.

These same symptoms appear when you exercise. Exercise is considered a form of exposure therapy for reducing anxiety. The more your body becomes used to those symptoms, the less it will fear them.

Exercise, Cognitive and Motor Function, and ADHD

New research suggests physical exercise can improve cognitive and motor functioning in children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. When exercising, chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine are released in the brain. They are associated with thinking and attention. When these chemicals are low, symptoms of ADHD are more likely.

Exercise can lead to reduced impulsivity and hyperactivity and better control over concentration.

Exercise, Internal Arousal, and PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder is marked by external triggers that cause physiological cues, which lead to hyperarousal. The result is often anxiety, panic, and depression. Physiological signals include rapid heart rate and shortness of breath. Similar cues are produced with exercise. 

Similar to how exercise reduces anxiety, it can do the same for PTSD. It helps you become desensitized to the physical responses that trigger negative symptoms.

That’s not the only way it reduces PTSD symptoms, however. Exercise improves cognitive function and normalizes the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, which regulates your reactions to stress. Further, it can produce anti-inflammatory effects, so you sleep better, have improved cognitive functioning, and strengthen your immune system.

Exercise and Mental Health

There is no wrong exercise unless it causes distress or injury. Choose activities you enjoy, and don’t be afraid to try various activities until you find the ones you love. Enjoying what you do makes the activity seem a lot less like exercise and more like having fun.

Studies have shown that team sports or exercising in groups produces greater mental health benefits, like reducing depression and social anxiety. Getting feedback from peers can also be encouraging and a great way to build self-esteem.

If you don’t want to exercise with others, find solo activities you enjoy. Now’s the time if you have ever wanted to learn yoga, line dancing, water aerobics, or kayaking.

How Much Exercise is Enough?

The exact amount of time to exercise is up for debate. Each person has different needs and different abilities. One thing most agree on is that moderate exercise is best. Moderate exercise refers to any type of movement that gets your heart beating faster. You should be breathing harder but still be able to hold a conversation.

If you can’t do thirty minutes, that’s okay. Start with five minutes of moderate exercise and work your way up. You can also do ten minutes of exercise three different times during the day.

The point is just to start moving so you can start feeling the rewards. Here are some interesting facts based on science, shared by Mental Health America regarding exercise and mental health benefits:

  • One hour per week of exercise is linked to lowered substance use, mood, and anxiety disorders.
  • Exercise has the same positive effects on anxiety that cognitive-behavioral therapy provides.
  • People who make regular physical activity part of their routine have less depression, panic, and phobias.
  • You can exercise in ten-minute intervals, fifteen times a week, and get the recommended amount of physical activity to improve your mental health.

Getting Started

Starting your exercise routine for better mental health requires a plan. You do not want just to jump right in and overdo it, get injured, and be forced to avoid exercise. This will not help you reach your goals. 

Instead, set goals each week regarding exercise that are realistic. For example, create a daily or weekly schedule that includes the amount of time and type of activity. Track how you feel physically and mentally before and after your exercise. Finally, at the end of the week, reward yourself. You deserve it!