Exercise: More Than Just The Physical 02/05/23
Today I wanted to talk about a side of exercise that often gets overlooked: its positive effects not on the physical body, but on one’s mental health and well-being.
Most people are aware of the physical benefits that come along with regular exercise but many don’t know that exercise actually has the power to improve your mental health as well. Exercise has been shown to play a key role in alleviating symptoms of the two most common mental health disorders today, anxiety and depression. There is an ever-increasing amount of scientific understanding of these mental health disorders as well as an increasing amount of evidence supporting exercise as a way to manage symptoms.
Unlike diseases that have a physical manifestation, mental health disorders affect the brain and can have a negative impact on mood, perception, personality and cognitive abilities (Archer 30). First, I’ll touch on some of the key points of anxiety and depression disorders:
Most common type of mental illness in Western countries, affecting 40 million American adults, or 18% of adults (NIMH 2014a)
Some anxiety from time to time is normal in people’s lives, but once it starts to become excessive and affect a person’s daily life, it becomes a disorder.
Severe anxiety can last at least 6 months and can become worse if untreated.
Signs & symptoms of anxiety include but are not limited to: feelings of worry, tension, sweating, pounding heart, dizziness, breathlessness, and jumpiness.
Types of anxiety illness include OCD, panic disorder, PTSD, and social phobia (Archer 30).
Depression, or Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)
Includes symptoms of depression that interfere with a person’s ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy once-pleasurable activities, preventing them to function normally.
Affects about 14.8 million U.S. adults, or 6.7% of adults (NIHM 2014a).
Some people may experience only a single lifetime episode, but more often a person experiences multiple episodes.
Signs & symptoms of depression include but are not limited to: persistent sad mood or “empty” feelings, feelings of hopelessness or pessimism, loss of interest in most things, feelings of guilt, fatigue & low energy, concentration problems, and sleep problems.
Varieties of depression include psychotic depression, post-partum depression, & seasonal affective disorder (SAD) (Archer 31).
Another interesting fact to note is that nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and vise versa (Mantell, M.R).
Now we’ll take a look at exercise and its effects on mental health. Most experts agree that it’s a combination of both direct & indirect factors that explain why exercise has a positive impact on mental health.
“Side effects” of exercise that enhance mental health include better circulation, reduced inflammation, boost in psychological outlook, exposure to positive environmental factors, & perceptual behavior shifts.
According to the science, exercise may improve mental health in the following ways:
By enhancing physiological health - it reduces peripheral risk factors for poor mental health such as inflammation, diabetes, hypertension & CV disease, increased blood flow & associated delivery of nutrients & energy.
By raising tolerance for emotional stress - since exercise stresses the body, regular exercise increases a person’s resilience towards other forms of physical & emotional stress, and helps people adapt better when tough situations do arise.
By increasing familiarity with physical stress – regular exercise can help people with anxiety learn to control their experience of physiological stress (such as increased HR or sweating, which some anxiety suffers experience during an attack) and these symptoms can become less frightening.
By boosting self-efficacy - mastering a new skill (such as exercise) can lead to higher self-esteem & overall well-being.
By fostering social contact – provides encouragement & can improve mood.
By increasing exposure to the outdoors/sunlight/green environments - helps to lift mood (sunlight increases neurotransmitter levels).
By diverting negative thinking - (mindful) exercise helps people struggling with depression to get out of their negative thought cycles (diverts attention).
- By encouraging engagement instead of avoidance - creating a structured exercise program directs focus to the value of the activity & teaches persistence (rather than withdrawal/escape that people with anxiety can struggle with).
In short, physical activity causes changes in the brain neurochemicals that affect mood (serotonin, dopamine, GABA), which are the same neurochemicals targeted by anti-depressant & anti-anxiety medications (Young 2007). It can be a valuable adjunctive therapy, especially for people with severe symptoms. Exercise promotes mental health by buffering the negative effects of psychological stress on brain function, promoting neural growth, protecting the brain from damage, and enhancing brain function. It has also been shown to reverse the conditions that chronic stress exacerbates, which results in feelings of well-being and (improved) mental health (Archer 34).
So, you might now be wondering some very important questions like how much exercise is effective? What types of exercise are effective? And how quickly can benefits be felt?
As far as how much exercise (we’ll call it the “dose,” which includes frequency, intensity, and time), studies have shown that amounts consistent with the public health recommendations (for both aerobic activity and strength training) are sufficient. Current public health guidelines include 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on most days of week (at least 150 min per week or 75 min of vigorous intensity).
As far as which types of exercise are the best at helping to improve mental health – it’s been determined that it’s very important for each person to decide on their own. Feeling a sense of choice & control over the physical activity that you do is important for mental health benefits compared to being prescribed a specific intensity or type by someone else. This also includes choosing the where, and if it’s alone or with others.
Finally, it’s been found that it can take 12-16 weeks to experience overall symptom reduction in mood disorders, but people will typically feel better and enjoy a sense of accomplishment immediately, after even just one session. Every time a workout is completed, there is an increase in self-confidence, which will build over time – celebrate achievement & acknowledge the reward of pursuing goals.
In conclusion, whether you yourself struggle with a mental health disorder or if you know someone that does, it is important to understand that they are widespread and nothing to be ashamed of. They can create turmoil and destroy life, or if we commit to a positive path, they can bring out our very best. Knowing that exercise has the power to boost mental health is huge, and we should use it to our advantage since mental health is just as important to our overall well-being as our physical health is.
As Hippocrates once said:
“The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well.”
Archer, JD, MA, Shirley. "Train Yourself Happy." IDEA Fitness Journal 11.6 (2014): 28-37. Print.