The benefits of exercise on mental health are well documented. So what exactly is it about exercise that helps with mental wellness and health?
Exercise has long been used as a natural pathway to help with mental and physical wellbeing. An interesting study published in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that mental and physical activity can have a positive outcome on overall brain health—which is no real surprise.
However, it wasn’t the type of activity (cardio vs stretching exercises and educational programming vs intensive computer work), but rather the frequency of activity that improved brain health.
Another study suggests that exercise is more effective than mental activity at protecting the brain from shrinking and from white matter lesions (which can be markers for the onset of dementia).
How Exercise Affects Mental Health
The benefits of mood-enhancing endorphins are well documented, but there are other perks to joining a fitness facility, getting on your favorite piece of exercise equipment or even just going for a brisk walk.
Most exercisers are looking for the appearance modification aspect of working out. Improved physique, weight loss, and muscle gain are all common goals. But it turns out that exercise can help with improvements above the neck, too.
This is probably the most immediate benefit that comes from hopping on the treadmill. Neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine give you a little boost after a good workout. This is a natural (and clinically proven) way of combating depression and anxiety.
Improved Cognitive Ability
Yup, mental acuity declines as we age. But exercise can slow that down and shore up the losses that happen as we get older. How? Chemicals. Washing the areas of the brain that help with cognitive functioning (like memory and learning) slows down brain matter degeneration.
Neurogenesis is the creation of new cells. In this case, brain cells. Exercise, and a heavy session of it (cardiovascular in this case), not only slows degeneration but also stimulates the protein BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which is the growth factor that is responsible for canonical nerve growth. So exercise doesn’t just help preserve the brain cells we already have, it actually helps create more.
Another one of those exercise-related benefits is sounder, more restful sleep. Even people with insomnia can benefit from the physiological response to exercise–and get a good night’s sleep.
More and better sleep can help reduce stress by removing fatigue. Getting rid of stressors is helpful in reducing anxiety.
Mental Health Disorders and The Effect of Exercise
We live in a world that is full of potential stressors. Commuting, working and changing social structures all contribute. Stress (and stressful activity) is one of the leading triggers for both anxiety and depression.
According to statistics, 18% of U.S. adults suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, making it one of the most prevalent mental health disorders. Depression (specifically major depressive disorder) is reported to affect 6.7% of U.S. adults.
These are not minor mental health afflictions. And not all are effectively treated. But the good news is that something as simple as regular exercise at home, in a fitness facility, on exercise equipment or under your own steam can help.
It is important to note that exercise is not a cure for any mental illness, but it will help to improve the symptoms, especially those of anxiety and depression. In fact, an Archives of Internal Medicine study found that regular exercise has a more profound effect that using antidepressants.
Best Types of Exercise for Anxiety and Depression
As discussed earlier, it is not necessarily the amount of exercise that is important but rather the frequency. The more often you exercise the more positive of an impact on mental health and mental outlook.
For some, the treadmill might be the go-to for helping to reduce anxiety, but others might see heavy lifting as the way to beat out the blues. To each their own when finding what helps the most.
However, there is some evidence to suggest that certain types of exercise can be more beneficial for those with anxiety or depression—especially those aerobic activities that increase the heart rate.
Aerobic Exercises for Mental Health
Runner’s high is a real thing. The endorphins and neurotransmitters that give runners a boost are out in abundance, producing a feeling of euphoria and helping with pain reduction.
This mood enhancement is helpful in reducing anxiety. Additionally, it is believed that running can have a meditative effect through repetitive motion, which, along with the endorphin release, can have a powerful effect on depression and depressive disorders.
Running on a treadmill will trigger the endorphin release, but some researchers advocate for outdoor and trail running, as nature has a calming effect on the mind. Additionally, chemicals released by decaying foliage to slow the decay has the same slowing effect on humans, forcing a slower, less rushed approach to things.
Of course, there are those that are unable to perform strenuous activity, due to physical or location constraints. For these individuals, other aerobic activities will provide similar results.
The mental (as well as physical) benefits of dancing are manifold. Along with the aforementioned benefits that aerobic activity can have on mental wellbeing, there are the additional stress-reducing benefits of working out with a partner or in a group.
The sense of belonging, community and shared experience (and goals) all have a positive effect on mood and personal outlook. This is especially true for extroverts.
Dance classes (like Zumba) have been shown to have better anxiety reduction than other forms of exercise when done alone.
Also, as a form of kinetic, artistic expression, dancing can create a stronger connection between the body and the mind as they work in creative unison.
Oh, and don’t forget that there’s the calming effect of music, too.
Boxing as an exercise form has become more popular in recent years. From Tae Bo to group kickboxing classes, it has many different forms to suit exercisers’ particular needs.
And for good reason. It is a great aerobic exercise, and “hitting the bag” offers physical feedback and release of aggression—both of which can reduce stress and anxiety—aiding the anxious or depressed mind.
|TIP: Small steps—literally.
People suffering from depression and/or anxiety often find it difficult to motivate themselves to exercise.
Set attainable goals. It is about the act of doing, not how well you do it. Proficiency and ability will come with time. It is important for those afflicted with mental health disorders not to add an additional layer of stress by overshooting the mark.
Non-aerobic Exercises for Mental Health
Yoga and Tai Chi
Beyond providing an exercise in flexibility, core strengthening and controlled movement, yoga produces a meditative effect through controlled breathing, which calms the mind and significantly improves anxiety symptoms.
The definition of Pilates pretty much says it all for the effects it can have on mental health:
“a system of exercises using special apparatus, designed to improve physical strength, flexibility, and posture, and enhance mental awareness.”
Pilates focuses on core strength and flexibility, so it is similar to yoga. It helps with motion in space and overall awareness. The boost in self-confidence that practitioners receive can have wonderful effects on self-esteem—all of which lead to a better mental state.
Exercise is more than just a means to a physical end. It can have numerous benefits for the mind too. So the next time you are gearing up to get onto your favored exercise equipment, go for a run (or walk) or join a group at a fitness facility, remember to relax and breathe easy. Your mind will thank you.