With winter coming to an end (hopefully!) and spring approaching, what better way to ‘Spring Forward’ than incorporating more movement and exercise into our daily routines. Why is exercise really the ‘best’ medicine and why does my doctor keep recommending that I exercise more? Is there really a correlation between exercise and mental health? Absolutely!
In general, consistent exercise has proven to:
- Reduce stress
- Improve sleep
- Boost self-esteem
- Prevent feelings of anxiety and depression
Exercise improves our physical health by helping our bodies fight off disease faster, preventing weight gain, promoting weight loss, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, and prolonging our lives overall. Aside from improving our physical health, it has a huge impact on our mental health.
Some short-term effects of exercise on mental health are: stress relief, it provides a sense of accomplishment, reduces anxiety and panic attacks, among others. With consistent exercise, you can benefit from the long-term effects…alleviating anxiety, depression, improving self-esteem, increasing motivation, and building resilience to future stressors. Can you afford to add a minimum of 10-20 minutes every morning to start the day with a positive mindset?
What happens to your brain when you workout?
As you begin to workout, your brain recognizes it as a moment of stress. Your heart rate increases, you begin to sweat, and oxygen is pumped into your brain. Your body is in a state referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response. The brain releases a flood of hormones during exercise. One of the most commonly known as endorphins. The reason we feel so alive and energetic after a good workout, also referred to as a “runner’s high,” is because of the endorphins released throughout the body. Endorphins minimize the perception of pain and trigger a positive feeling in the body. These endorphins not only minimize the ‘pain’ of the workout but also alleviate anxiety and depression, as well as reduce negative effects of stress. On the other hand, being low in endorphins can result in being more stressed out, anxious, and even depressed.
Studies show low levels of particular neurotransmitters in our brains can lead to mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Moderate exercise has proven to increase these levels, subsequently improving mood and reducing the risk of mood disorders.
Incorporating a few hours of moderate intensity exercise weekly can have major positive effects on your brain activity. It increases blood flow, improves structures in white matter that connects the brain to cognitive performance, increases the hippocampus which is responsible for memory and thinking skills, and reduces stress which in turn decreases cortisol levels.
We live in a fast-paced, driven time, where stress and demand are high, and leisure and self-care are low. Being in a constant state of stress is like being in the ‘fight or flight’ state without actually being in a threatening situation. When we are stressed, we are releasing extra cortisol. Increased levels of cortisol are dangerous to the body and can cause a number of issues: heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain, and memory loss, to name a few.
The Center of Disease Control and Prevention recommends 2.5 hour of moderate intensity aerobic exercise weekly. If walking isn’t your thing, there are many other types of exercise to choose from: swimming, stair climbing, kickboxing, tennis, and even dancing. Some household activities can be strenuous enough to cause your body’s response system to be activated as well.
The American Heart Association provides helpful tips for long-term success…
- Start small then add to your workouts.
- Don’t make goals unattainable. They need to be realistic.
- Track your progress to help you notice change and help further encourage you.
- Work out with a friend for motivation.
- Join a class; make the commitment.
- Pay a personal trainer to guide you (if you can afford to do so).
- Try to workout in the morning to lessen the risk of skipping after work when you’re tired.
- Take your kids with you! Teach them by example.
- Make it a priority!
The benefits of exercise on our body and brain are abundant. The next time you are feeling stressed or down, consider sacrificing 10-20 minutes to work out and be mindful of how it positively impacts your mood when you are done!
Below are some resources for further information:
Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and co-author, with Otto, of the 2011 book “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-being.”
Mary Mika, Psy.D.
Athans and Associates
Behavioral Health Care Consultants
32 Main Street, Park Ridge, IL 60068