Mental health and exercise aren't typically what people think of when they think of mental health topics. It is a commonly held belief that exercise is good for your health. And when you think about it, it seems like common sense. After all, we know that exercise can help us lose weight, strengthen our heart, muscles and bones, and stave off the onset of disease. So, it is logical to believe that exercise should help us live happier, more satisfying lives.
There is a lot of scientific evidence to support this. A review of the research by Michalak and Szewczyk (2013) showed that physical activity is linked with higher levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction, happiness, and optimism. The evidence showed that people who exercise regularly reported fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than people who do not exercise.
Although exercise has been shown to improve mental health, many people are still stumped about how physical activity influences mental well-being. So, how does exercise affect our mental health? It affects the brain in a variety of ways, from increasing the flow of feel-good “happy hormones” to reducing stress and anxiety. Here, we’ll look at how physical activity improves depression, anxiety, and stress.
The influence of exercise on mental health and well-being can be a complex topic, so let's break it down.
What are the benefits of exercise on mental health?
It is a proven fact that regular exercise can improve mental health. We know this, but it is not always easy to know how to start off and make it a lifestyle rather than an occasional routine. We will be exploring how to exercise effectively for improving mental health, and what tools and other resources are available to help you along the way.
Exercise can do wonders for your body, and overall health. While exercise is great for physical health, it can also be beneficial for your mental health. Exercise is one of the best natural mood-boosters around. It elevates your endorphin levels, gives you a natural pick-me-up, and gives you more energy and motivation to tackle other things. Exercise releases natural feel-good chemicals in your brain, called endorphins, which make you feel more relaxed. They also create more neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that transmit signals from one nerve cell to another. We’ll return to endorphins again shortly.
Aside from endorphins, the body releases' dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps relay messages between nerve cells. Dopamine also plays an important role in motivation, motor control, executive functions, and the feeling of pleasure. There are other roles that dopamine affects such as reinforcement, learning, heart rate, sleep, and attention. As on might imagine, dopamine is quite important, which is why so many mental health conditions are linked to dopamine dysfunction.
Another molecule that is impacted by exercise is brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). It plays a key role in our brains ability to learn and memorize. The BDNF protein promotes the survival of various neurons that play a role in growth, differentiation, and maintenance of cells. It also helps with the regulation of synaptic plasticity which helps with adaptation in response to changing environments.
It's not magic though
As one can see, it’s no secret that exercise has a profound impact on the body. Yet it seems to be the most under utilized “treatment” that we have. That’s not to imply that by itself it has the ability to treat a mental health condition on its own. However, it is something that should not be left out of the equation as it can potentially help increase the overall effectiveness of the treatment. Mental health and exercise should be explored more than it has been in the past, and utilized even more than it has up to this point in time.
Incorporate exercise into your daily routine
Let’s get away from the science end of this for a minute. Let's look at some practical ways to increase the amount of exercise you are able to get in a day. After a long day of work, the last thing you want to do is head to the gym and start running around the track. The best workout routine for you is one you can stick with and the key is to find the exercise you enjoy doing most. If you love the outdoors, you might try hiking or catching some rays at the beach while walking. If you’re more of a gym rat, take advantage of the free weights and the cardio machines, and work up a sweat. Whether you’re swimming, biking, running, or boot camping it, the important thing is that you challenge yourself to do some form of exercise daily.
Exercise is important for your health, but you don't need to spend hours at the gym to achieve the benefits of exercise. In fact, all it takes is a simple change in your daily routine. For example, if you don't normally walk to work or school, try walking or riding a bicycle instead of driving. This simple change in transportation can have a positive impact on your health and fitness! Remember, as it pertains to mental health and exercise, your goal is to find something that you are going to be able to complete on a regular basis.
Keep things simple
If you’ve been exercising for a while, you know how easy it is to get into a rut. Showing up to complete the same workout with nothing no results to show for it can sometimes be demoralizing. This would be a good time to evaluate your workout regimen and see if it's still serving its purpose. If not, it has to change.
Maintaining an exercise routine for the sake of keeping an exercise routine isn't going to have the same impact if it doesn't challenge you or keep you engaged. Especially if your goal is to impact not just your physical health, but your mental health as well.
Mental health and exercise
As with diet and other aspects of your health, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to how long you should be exercising. No matter which type of exercise you choose, research affirms that any amount of physical activity each day is better than none. Regular activity can keep your body and brain young while improving your mood and overall mental health.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week with at least two days of muscle strengthening activities. However, this doesn’t mean that this is all you need to do, sometimes this takes some experimenting with in order to find what works for you. Keep in mind that this is at a moderate intensity with moderate being defined as a step rate of 100 steps per minute. You may have to work a little harder than this to impact various mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and ADHD.
When looking at mental health and exercise, it becomes really difficult to find enough research to give us more exact protocols to follow. It's not as easy as simply prescribing a duration and intensity of exercise. It will take some trial and error.
So where do you go from here?
As you might understand, this is not a comprehensive guide to how to manage or understand mental health and exercise. It's more to show you what kind of impact adding exercise into your life can help. It's understandable that it may be tough at times to find the motivation to move, but any little bit can help.
If you find your self struggling and you are having a difficult time finding help, know that you can always reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
They have a hotline that is free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. Don't hesitate to seek help.