If you have mental health issues, exercise can often feel like the last thing you want to do, yet it’s one of the easiest and least intrusive ways to manage mental health. Study after study has shown that physical activity can help lessen feelings of anxiety and depression and help reduce stress. In fact, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health both recommend exercise as a way to reduce stress and promote mental well-being. Exercise has been demonstrated to be effective in treating depression, anxiety, and insomnia. The best part about this is that it doesn’t have to be regularly scheduled exercise in a gym (though it certainly can be), it just needs to be a total of 30 minutes of physical activity (3 x 10 minutes or 2 x 15 minutes work just as well as 30 minutes at a time) between 3 and 5 times a week. Here are some of the ways that exercise can help promote mental health.
Regular exercise can help improve the quality and duration of sleep. Not only that, but exercising in the morning or early afternoon can help to reset the sleep / wake cycle – which is a great way to beat things like jet lag, and recover from a few too many late nights. When you don’t get enough quality sleep, you are less able to small stressors and that can steamroll and negatively affect anxiety and depression. Conversely, getting a good night’s sleep can improve feelings of mental wellness. It’s worth noting that vigorous exercise in the 2 hours before you want to sleep has been shown to negatively affect the ability to fall asleep in many people so to maximize the benefits of exercising for sleep, plan your workouts accordingly.
Research has shown that something as simple as a 10 minute walk at a moderate-brisk pace will lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and contribute to a more relaxed feeling. Exercise that focuses on mindfulness, such as yoga, can help interrupt the flow of negative thoughts that is common to sufferers of anxiety. Stress also causes physical discomfort, including muscle tightness through the neck and shoulders, and can negatively affect sleep patterns - both of which can be ameliorated by regular workouts and the stretching / cool down processes that follow a workout. It’s interesting to note that one of the ways scientists believe exercise helps with anxiety is through repeated exposure and desensitization to common anxiety reactions such as increased heart rate and perspiration. So not only can exercise help reduce anxiety and stress you already have, but it can help prevent anxiety and stress in the future.
Can exercise actually make you happy? Well, that’s up for debate, but exercising has been proven to aid in the release of endorphins which do elevate mood. This is what accounts for the ‘runner’s high’ – the feeling many runners experience after a run that helps them ignore the pain. Endorphins go to the pain receptors in the brain and fill them, which reduces the perception of pain. Endorphins also help boost your mood, triggering feelings of satisfaction and optimism. Exercise also triggers the body to release serotonin which can help alleviate symptoms of depression.
We all agree that exercising is important to physical health. It can help to treat and prevent conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Recent evidence is showing that regular exercise (30 minutes, 3-5 times a week) can help improve mental wellness as well as physical wellness. It’s not a magic bullet - exercise cannot replace medical advice and you certainly shouldn’t just stop any medication because you’ve started working out, but as part of a holistic approach to mental health, exercise can do wonders for your mental well-being.
Recently I’ve been going to Orangetheory fitness to get strong and fit. While I’m at my ideal size and weight I was really out of shape. After just 2 months at the gym I see a huge improvement in my mood, my body composition and my energy. So much so that a few days ago I was debating if I should go and hubby said: “go, you are so much better when you exercise’. It’s true. I am.