Physical exercise boosts mental health – I mention this often, but have never really gone into detail about it. Today I thought I would do so…..
“To enjoy the glow of good health, you must exercise.” ~ Gene Tunney
Many of us know the physical benefits of a healthy body such as improved cardiovascular health, increased muscle mass and getting and maintaining your desired physique, but how many know about the added benefits for the mind, brain and mental health? Physical exercise boosts mental health too! For many years now scientists have wondered how exercise helps brain function. Studies show that any form of exercise boosts mental health and is beneficial for brain health; so going for that walk in the park, going for a run or hitting the gym is of benefit for the mind as well as the body.
I know I always feel much better after exercising and I wanted to explore that in a bit more depth. Some of the mental health benefits of physical exercise are outlined below and so I hope you let them inspire you into action leading to a healthier happier lifestyle.
Can help keep depression at bay:
Exercise has been proven to be at least as effective as medication in treating mild depression for most people who take on a structured exercise plan. Those who exercise frequently are also less likely to become depressed than those who are inactive.
“For some people it works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression,” says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
There are various theories that explain the link between depression and exercise, the most well-known of which being the endorphin theory. High-intensity exercise releases the body’s feel-good chemicals called endorphins, resulting in the “runner’s high” that many runners report. You can read more about that with this article here: Getting and Using the Runner’s High.
Aside from more complex mechanisms, however, the simple facts that exercising is distracting (in a positive way), gets you out of the house and makes you feel better about your body also go some way to explaining why exercise is effective at beating depression.
Exercise is helpful for the majority of people who experience mild depression but it is not a silver bullet when it comes to moderate or severe depression. In more extreme cases, you should seek medical help in conjunction with maintaining a healthy exercise routine. Anyway, here’s a picture of some people being happy because they exercised….. I mean, what more proof do you need? 😉
Can improve your sex life:
Sexual disorders and disinterest can be detrimental to relationships for those who experience them. Sexual health is strongly related to physical and mental health with those who are inactive or depressed being much more likely to experience some form of sexual dysfunction than active people.
There are more studies, but those that really stood out for me were Penhollow & Young, M. (2004) authors of Sexual desirability and sexual performance: Does exercise and fitness really matter? In the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, and White and colleagues (1990) who authored Enhanced sexual behavior in exercising men that featured in the Archives of Sexual Behavior which indicated that vigorous exercise improves blood flow throughout the body and can reduce the likelihood of impotence in men. For women, the link between exercise and sex has been explored by Cindy Meston and her colleagues. Their results indicate that working out improves sexual response in women. Perhaps more than the physical benefits though, exercise has also been proven to enhance self-esteem, a key element to a healthy sex life.
Get more sleep:
Those suffering from one or more mental health complications are likely to experience sleep deprivation and this can also be a trigger for mental health problems. Fortunately, those who exercise are more likely to sleep for longer and wake up less frequently in the night than those that are sedentary. People sleep significantly better and feel more alert during the day if they get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, a 2008 study carried out by the American Psychological Association concludes. So it’s certainly something that you need to work toward and not give up on too easily.
“Increasingly, the scientific evidence is encouraging as regular physical activity may serve as a non-pharmaceutical alternative to improve sleep.” says Brad Cardinal, a professor of exercise science at Oregon State University.
Exercise could also reduce the likelihood of anxiety attacks. Aerobic exercise, especially when it is high-intensity, has been proven to reduce both anxiety sensitivity and more generalised anxiety. There are several possible explanations as to why this might be the case but one of the more convincing is that the effects of exercise – an elevated heart rate and sweating – allow the body to become accustomed to the symptoms of an anxiety attack in a safe environment. Furthermore, exercise can boost mood, another antidote to anxiety.
Reduce stress levels:
When stress affects the brain, with its many nerve connections, the rest of the body feels the impact as well. It’s impossible to eliminate, but you can learn to manage stress. According to a recent ADAA online poll, some 14 percent of people make use of regular exercise to cope with stress4. Researchers have calculated that one twenty-minute exercise session can generate ninety to one hundred relaxation response from your body. In layman’s terms, that’s more relaxation per minute than you’ll get from a soak in the tub. This is one of the reasons that people who are able to exercise during the workday, experience much lower stress levels than those who work in an office environment.
Feel better, in body and mind:
It’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly which chemical is responsible when we examine the ways exercise boosts mental health. Some say endorphins, others point to a variety of neurotransmitters including norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin, all of which can be traced to a ‘feel-good factor’ and all of which are elevated during exercise. Whatever the exact reason, the results are clear: people who exercise regularly report higher rates of well-being and lower incidences of depression and anxiety.
One of the more interesting recent studies evaluating the effectiveness of exercise at beating depression compared exercise-as-a-treatment versus a standard medication plan. While medication did work more quickly to alleviate the symptoms of depression, at the sixteen week mark it was found that the two methods were just as effective as one another.
More interestingly however was the fact that at the ten month follow up, those who had continued to exercise were much less likely to have fallen back into depression than those who had continued to take medication.
“Exercise to stimulate, not to annihilate. The world wasn’t formed in a day, and neither were we. Set small goals and build upon them” ~ Lee Haney
These are all very good and motivating reasons for getting moving, so find yourself a fitness buddy that will help push you, motivate you and hold you accountable. Most of all find something that you will enjoy doing and find someone you will enjoy doing it with and have fun. If you want to see for yourself that exercise boosts mental health then get into a routine; most of the evidence suggests that you engage in exercise by doing something that you will sustain and ideally something you enjoy so that you keep it up and engage in it regularly. Read these articles to help you with that greatly:
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