When it comes to exercise, most of us focus on the physical benefits: more endurance, more strength or a leaner appearance.
These are worthwhile reasons, but it is the feelings we experience from regular exercise that keep us coming back. Consistently feeling empowered, self-confident and energized holds more weight. But even better, exercise has a significant effect on mental health.
There’s no doubt that exercise can be beneficial to some of the more than 40 million Americans who the National Alliance on Mental Illness says experience some form of mental illness, which includes anxiety and depression. Or to the 24 percent of Americans who the American Psychological Association said suffered from extreme stress in 2015.
So let’s explore the three most common mental ailments and the effect that exercise can have in helping those who are experiencing them.
Stress can wreak havoc on your body. The muscles in your neck and shoulders become tense, back or neck pain manifests, and even painful headaches can develop. More severe cases include feelings of tightness in the chest, accelerated heart rate, insomnia and gastrointestinal issues as well.
Exercising is a great way to cope with stress. The endorphins released during exercise in the brain actually help relax tense muscles and relieve tension in the body. Exercise also increases concentrations of norepinephrine, which helps the brain’s response to stress.
Essentially, we become both physically and mentally more capable of dealing with what life throws at us more easily — something definitely to consider the next time you want to skip your workout because you are too stressed.
Exercise is a natural and effective way to treat anxiety. Endorphins again are a big contributor to alleviating symptoms of anxiety. Even more surprisingly, psychologists studying how exercise relieves anxiety suggest that even a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout. As little as short bursts of 5 minutes of cardiovascular exercise throughout the day stimulate anti-anxiety effects.
This is extremely encouraging considering that time constraints are one of the main reasons that Americans don’t exercise. Taking time to go for a quick daily walk, using the stairs instead of the elevator or simply getting up from the desk for a posture break can prove to be very beneficial if you are feeling anxious.
Consider these findings by behavioral psychologist and researcher Andrea L Dunn, PhD:
▪ The antidepressant action is one of the most commonly accepted psychological benefits of exercise.
▪ Patients diagnosed with depression have credited exercise with being an important element in comprehensive treatment programs for depression.
▪ It also appears that both a onetime exercise session and chronic exercise training programs have a positive effect on people with clinical depression.
▪ Studies show that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication.
Exercise has a powerful effect on depression for numerous reasons. First are the changes in the brain, which include neural growth, reduction in inflammation and the feelings of calm and well-being from those feel-good endorphins. Also, exercise can serve as a distraction, allowing you to find some reprieve from the negative thought patterns of depression.
Overall, the important thing to remember is that some exercise is always better than none. This is the biggest takeaway. While following a structured exercise regimen of resistance training and cardiovascular training is ideal, not everyone can commit to five days a week in the gym, particularly if you are just starting out.
But take comfort in knowing that even 5-10 minutes of daily activity can produce a positive impact and give you more ease when dealing with mental stress. The point is to start somewhere and make it a part of your weekly routine. From there you can build momentum to add a little more as you gain confidence. The more you exercise, the more energy you’ll have, and the more you’ll want to engage in it. Your body and mind will always be better for it.