Exercise: the antidote to poor mental health?
There is rarely a single answer to tackling poor mental health, but there are small life changes we can all make that can have a hugely positive impact on our mental and physical wellbeing. One of the most effective tools in our toolkit is exercise, recognized for its numerous health benefits.
What does exercise do for us?
Exercise can have a profound effect on our wellbeing, boosting our mental state by reducing levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Numerous studies have consistently demonstrated that incorporating regular exercise into mental health treatment can significantly improve overall wellbeing.These findings underscore the importance of prioritizing physical fitness in daily routines for maintaining a healthy and balanced life.
Physiologically, exercise increases blood circulation to multiple areas of the brain, including the limbic system and hippocampus, which regulate motivation and mood, and the amygdala, which deals with stress. Whether you’re walking, running, swimming, lifting weights or playing basketball, when you exercise, your body produces hormones called endorphins. Endorphins act as neurotransmitters, blocking stress and other pain signals, leading to the phenomenon often referred to as the “runner’s high.” Endorphins also relieve pain, regulate immune and inflammatory responses, reduce stress throughout the body, and trigger the release of dopamine. Dopamine does all the above, but it lasts longer!
So, with most of the biochemistry out of the way, how can exercise help alleviate some mental health conditions?
How does exercise improve mental health?
When we’re stressed, we can feel overwhelmed, nervous and fidgety, bursting with negative energy in the form of worry or frustration. Our mental and emotional health can be improved through exercise, and adopting such a lifestyle can provide substantial advantages. Exercise can be a fantastic way to harness that energy and turn it into something positive. No matter what form of exercise we choose, focusing on that activity can take our mind off the other things in our busy lives that cause us to feel stressed. It’s a form of meditation; having a singular focus on a task puts your mind at rest, enabling it to switch off all the noise, and helping you feel clearer and worry-free.
Many of us feel stressed when we feel as though we’re not achieving the tasks we’ve set ourselves to do. With exercise, we can scratch that completionist itch. The relationship between mental health and exercise becomes apparent through the sense of accomplishment and the noticeable shift in mood that we often undergo following a workout. This change underscores the powerful connection between caring for our physical and mental health. Whether it’s a 15-minute walk with the dog, or a 60-minute spin class, we can finish it, happy in the knowledge that we’ve ticked it off the list.
As previously mentioned, when we exercise, endorphins and dopamine are released which can have a long-lasting effect, boosting our mood and keeping us feeling grounded and motivated throughout the rest of the day. This can help us focus on other daily tasks, helping us tick off our to-do list, eating away at stress one job at a time.
Many symptoms of stress overlap with anxiety, and the effects of exercise can be mutually beneficial. The aforementioned increase of blood circulation and release of chemicals by the brain can ease symptoms of anxiety, putting us into a calmer, more grounded and present state of mind.
Further to this, anxiety sufferers often experience low confidence or low self-esteem. One of the great benefits of exercise is the boost in confidence it can give you. At this very moment, you might be thinking, “I can’t go for a walk,” but as soon as you do, the sense of accomplishment can be extraordinary. Tomorrow, you might go for another walk, this time a little bit further. The link between exercise and mental health becomes more evident as you achieve that distance and feel great. Soon, you might leave the gym having hit that extra rep or target BPM with a newfound sense of confidence and self-esteem. This can do wonders for your anxiety, giving you the strength to tackle life head-on.
The resilience that exercise and mental health improvements can give you can be applied to all areas of your life. For many suffering with anxiety, it’s often weak—or a complete lack of—mental resilience that makes everyday situations so difficult. Exercise teaches us consistency through the good days and the bad, as well as how to overcome challenges, boosting our mental resilience and alleviating our anxiety.
When we’re depressed, one of the major symptoms is lethargy, which can make even the thought of exercise and mental health improvements seem incomprehensible. This can make the struggle very difficult. An internal battle takes place in our minds, knowing that exercise and mental health benefits could make us feel better and alleviate our depression, whilst not having the energy or motivation to get up and do it.
The relationship between physical activity and mental health is evident in how exercise alters brain chemistry. Regular exercise triggers the release of neurotrophic proteins, which causes the growth of nerve cells, improving brain health. Specifically, these proteins can target the hippocampus—the area of the brain which regulates mood. In turn, this can alleviate the symptoms of depression.
With the aforementioned lethargy, disturbed sleep and reduced appetite can combine to make exercise feel like an impossibility. However, there is a way through—start small and build up. If there’s a form of exercise you already love, great! If not, start by walking. Just five minutes can give you a solid foundation on which to build on. Walk for six minutes the next day, and so on. Depression can be beaten, but remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. There will be setbacks, but stick with it, and your hard work and consistency will pay off.
An often-overlooked factor that can lead to stress, anxiety or depression is loneliness. Exercise can help there too. When we think about exercise, we often think about jogging or going to the gym. However, outside of these individualistic pursuits, there are countless team activities or sports that you can take part in! As well as the benefits of exercise previously outlined, an added feature of exercise is that of social interaction. When we don’t get enough high-quality social interaction, it can lead to feelings of loneliness, which can be damaging to our mental wellbeing.
Participating in team sports or group activities can be a great way to meet new people and make new friends. Deep within us is the need to socialise; human beings are social creatures and we thrive on social interaction and forming new relationships. Exercise brings people together, from the baseball field to the swimming pool, and it can do wonders for our mental health. Having an interest or hobby in common with others also aids with consistency as, particularly in team sports, we hold each other to account, ensuring we’re always improving individually and collectively.
Breaking the cycle
So, what barriers must we overcome to get all the benefits of exercise? Thankfully, there are few barriers to exercise, but they can be a challenge. Firstly, we have to find a form of exercise that we enjoy. After all, the best exercise for mental health can integrate easily into our daily routines because we’re far more likely to stick to something we enjoy, and any effective exercise regime comes down to consistency. The form of exercise you choose can be anything: weight training, yoga, running, swimming, playing tennis, basketball or golf. If it gets you moving and gets your heart rate up, it’s exercise.
Where the cycle becomes particularly vicious is if you can’t immediately find a form of exercise you enjoy. This is the case for many of us, so don’t fear! There are multiple quick and effective exercises that can be done from the comfort of your own home if you’re not yet ready to hit the gym, sports field or swimming pool. Falling in love with exercise often starts with discovering those magic endorphins and experiencing the benefits of exercise and mental health improvements, which and that can be done doing anything, anywhere.
Exercise is not a silver bullet that will fix all mental health conditions. But, alongside improvements to our diet, regular therapy sessions, and more, exercise can give us the resilience, self-discipline and determination to battle through challenging times, knowing the good times are right around the corner.
For further guidance, speak to one of our therapists at Citron Hennessey Therapy about exercise and how we can put a plan together to help boost your mental wellbeing.