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Exercise Benefits Mental & Physical Health

Exercise Benefits Mental & Physical Health

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A healthy lifestyle is mandatory for good physical and mental health. Doctors often recommend exercise for physical outcomes, but why aren’t psychologists recommending physical exercise as well?

Studies revealing the effectiveness of exercise in the treatment of depression and anxiety have become quite popular. However, everyone should practice exercise, not just people suffering from mental illness. There are multiple benefits of exercise on mental health and the lack of awareness about this is unfortunate and unacceptable too.

The Exercise Effect

The benefits of exercise have been studied for a long time and there are still ongoing studies revealing information that is like gold for mental health improvements.

Some counselors have included walking in therapy sessions to help patients relax and open up. Moving your muscles is very beneficial for mental health, especially for those who suffer from anxiety or depression.

Researchers are looking to define how much exercise is needed, what mechanisms are behind the boost that exercise brings and why is it so hard for some people to include exercise in their routine.

Woman working out at home.

Mood enhancement

Whenever you feel stressed, sad, or irritated, one thing you can do is exercise. You will most likely feel better afterward. There is a very strong connection between exercise and your mood. It can be anything: going for a walk, yoga, going to the gym, playing sports. This is a great way to start your day in a great mood or to finish a long stressful day.

If you are not aware of this yet and haven’t experienced it, try working out or moving for at least five minutes and you will know what I’m talking about.

Woman working out on the beach.

Exercise as a treatment for depression

Mood enhancement is a short-term effect of exercise, but there are many more that go beyond the short-term. It has been proven that exercising helps people suffering from long-term depression. People have gotten their depression under control after including exercise in their routine. Data shows that depression is most common in inactive people and in people who were once active and then stopped.

Depressed woman.

In Blumenthal’s study, researchers split sedentary adults suffering from major depression into one of four groups: supervised exercise, home-based exercise, antidepressant therapy, or a placebo pill. Four months after, the patients in the exercise and antidepressant groups had higher remission rates than the other groups. So, it was concluded that exercise was generally comparable to antidepressants for major depression. One year later, the research revealed that the four-month trial didn’t predict remission but the subjects who practiced regular exercise had lower depression scores. The conclusion is that exercise treats depression and prevents relapse.

If you are suffering from depression including exercise in your daily or weekly routine can produce some great results. 

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Exercise as prevention of anxiety

When we get scared or feel threatened, our body can react with sweating, dizziness, and a racing heart. People that are sensitive to anxiety will respond to these reactions with fear and may develop panic disorder eventually.

Exercise helps these people become calmer and less likely to panic in fight-or-flight sensations. This is because most of the physical reactions in these situations are identical to the ones after you exercise. Studies that incorporated exercise in the routine of subjects with heightened sensitivity to anxiety showed significant mprovements, as they learned to associate the physical reactions with safety instead of danger; and showed a lower risk of panic attacks.

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Exercise Impact on the Brain

Some of the reasons for the big impact of moving your muscles on mental health may be the increase of serotonin, which is the neurotransmitter targeted by antidepressants and that alleviates chronic depression, and the increase of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which supports the growth of neurons.

Exercise helps normalize sleep which is crucial in protecting the brain. It also improves self-esteem and increases interest in sex.
Psychological explanations point to the fact that exercise boosts a depressed person’s outlook because it makes him feel a sense of accomplishment for returning to a meaningful activity. Another one, that I briefly mentioned before, is that exercise moderates a person’s response to stress.

Some other reasons were mentioned by the Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki in her Ted Talk. As she states, “exercise is the most transformative thing you can do for your brain today”. The reasons she gives are:

  • Exercise has immediate effects on your brain. These can be the mood boost and energy boost, for instance.
  • Exercise can improve your ability to shift and focus attention. This focus improvement will last for at least 2 hours.
  • A single workout will improve your reaction times, meaning that you will become faster.
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If you want to get long-lasting effects, you must change your exercise regime and increase your cardiorespiratory function. You are going to be able to get long-lasting effects because exercise changes your brain’s anatomy, physiology, and function. Long-lasting effects, according to Suzuki, are:

  • The production of new brain cells in the hippocampus (the part of the brain associated with memory). It increases its volume and improves your long-term memory.
  • The improvement of the functions of focus and attention which are dependent on your prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for cognitive control functions).
  • The immediate effects of exercise on your mood also last for a long time. You will get long-lasting increases in the neurotransmitters responsible for good mood.
  • The protective effects of exercise on your brain. Increased exercise over your lifetime, unfortunately, won’t cure Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, but it will take longer for these diseases to have a negative effect.
To get these long-lasting effects on your brain, the neuroscientist recommends exercise three to four times a week for at least 30 minutes per session. Make sure you include some aerobic exercise so that your heart rate increases. Click here or on the following image for more information on this.
TED Talk on the brain-changing benefits of exercise

Most helpful types of exercise

Researchers are not sure about the most helpful type of exercise for mental illness. However, most studies focused on aerobic exercise, weight training, and mind-body exercises like yoga. Any of these should be a good option:
  • Aerobic exercise can include activities like brisk walking, swimming, running, dancing, or cycling. It is also known as “cardio” exercise. When practicing it, your breathing and heart rate will increase. Aerobic exercise has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. The improvements can be caused by the increase in blood circulation to the brain and the influence on the physiologic reactivity to stress.
  • Weight training provides stress to the muscles so that they adapt and get stronger. This is similar to the way aerobic exercise strengthens your heart. Studies revealed that regular weight training reduces anxiety and depression symptoms.
  • Yoga is a mind-body exercise type. It focuses on bringing harmony between mind and body, by combining strengthening and stretching poses with deep breathing and meditation. Yoga has been shown to lower stress hormones and increase brain chemicals responsible for being in a good mood.
Man running; woman lifting weights; yoga class

The combination of exercise and meditation

Meditation consists of breathwork. When you meditate you practice your breathing, and the most effective medicine for anxiety is breathing. Whenever you start feeling anxious, be aware of it. Make sure you are controlling it and not letting your anxiety control you. Take a few slow deep breaths and become calmer.

When you exercise, make sure you are controlling your breath as well.

Meditation brings benefits to your mental health, such as better focus and concentration, improved self-awareness and self-esteem, lower levels of stress and anxiety, and fostering kindness. Try to meditate for at least 10 minutes a day to experience its benefits.

So, if both meditation and exercise bring benefits to your mental health and increase your mood, why not combine them? This is something practiced in yoga, but you can do it in any type of exercise. Studies have shown that the combination is more effective in treating depression. In fact, it revealed a reduction of depression symptoms by 40 percent. Give it a try!

Exercise as an Opportunity to Socialize and Improve your Emotional Health

Exercise can be fun; it doesn’t have to be boring or annoying! If you go to the gym, there are many group classes you can take, so you don’t have to work out by yourself. Dance classes are also a great option, you can exercise and at the same time, have fun and socialize with people.

If you don’t go to the gym, invite a friend for a morning run or a yoga session in your backyard or at the beach. You will combine exercise with friends and nature, isn’t that great?

Surrounding yourself with nature, and friends and exercise are great ways to maintain good emotional health.

Your emotional health is part of your mental health and you should not forget about taking care of it. Exercising is a great way to manage your emotions and feel and manage them. Sometimes you may feel irritated or stressed throughout the entire day. When this happens exercise will make you feel way better.

Yoga class

The physical benefits of exercise

As you know, exercise is key to improving your health and it can also reduce the risk of developing diseases like type 2 diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. By practicing regular physical activity, you can also:
  • Reduce your risk of a heart attack
  • Manage your weight
  • Lower your blood cholesterol level
  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Strengthen your bones, muscles, and joints and lower your risk of developing osteoporosis
  • Increase your chances of living longer

Why is it so hard to get the motivation to exercise?

Even though exercise is known to be very important for our health, a lot of people struggle with getting the motivation to do it and to remain consistent when they start. Why do you think this happens?

Something common is that people start too hard. They begin their exercise program with an intense cardio session, for instance. This often results in feelings of upset and a desire to avoid this activity. It is recommended to start slowly with a moderate exercise plan.

Another cause is the time it takes for the physical effects of exercise to be noticeable. People often lose motivation, because they don’t see any results in their bodies. However, when the goals are to lose weight, gain muscle, lower cholesterol, or prevent diabetes, it takes months before you can see the results of your hard work at the gym.

On the other hand, the mood boosts that exercise gives rise to is almost instant, and so is the gratification feeling. Something that people fail to do is exercise when they are feeling down, stressed, or have any negative feelings. This is the exact time that you should move and start exercising because it has the greatest payoff. For anxiety and depression, it may take a longer course of exercise to alleviate the symptoms.

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Before you start

Now that you are more aware of the physical and mental health benefits of exercise, I hope you feel motivated to start. However, before you start exercising it is important to discuss with your doctor  the best options for you.  Especially if:

  • You are aged over 45 years
  • You feel pain in your chest during or after you exercise
  • You often faint or experience dizziness
  • You are at a high risk of heart disease
  • You have heart disease
  • You are pregnant

The bottom line

Exercise improves and protects your brain and your body. It brings benefits to your cognitive functions, physical body, and emotional health. The information on the benefits of exercise in mental health arising is astonishing.  However, exercise cannot be used to improve your mental health alone. Of course, it should be accompanied by other healthy habits, such as eating healthy and meditating. Combining exercise with other treatments will get you better results if you suffer from mental illness. Start exercising today and improve your quality of life!

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