What are the mental health benefits of exercise?
Continuing this series of blogs, I will talk about how exercise can help with depression and anxiety today. (See part 1 on stress if you missed it), and if you are thinking you don't have the time or motivation, I talk a bit about that in a post coming soon, so keep an eye on this blog.
Exercise and depression
There have been many studies, including a recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which have shown that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication. The mentioned study actually found that running for 15 minutes a day or fast walking for 30 to 60 minutes reduces the risk of experiencing or relapsing into major depression by 26%.
Because exercise promotes all kinds of changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being, is a powerful depression fighter. It also releases those 'happiness chemicals' I previously mentioned, 'endorphins', in your brain that lift your spirits and make you feel good.
Another aspect of tackling depression involves avoiding cycles of negative thinking and distracting the focus away from those thought patterns which contribute to depressive symptoms, and it is well known that exercise can provide such a distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of the cycle and it also supports the cognitive re-alignment process of changing reactive behaviours to certain events or situations.
Exercise and anxiety
Exercise is also understood to be a natural and effective anti-anxiety treatment. It relieves tension and stress, boosts physical and mental energy, and enhances well-being through the release of those good old endorphins, again. Whilst anything that encourages us to undertake activities which release these chemicals is good, we get a bigger benefit if we pay attention and exercise in a mindful way instead of going through the motions.
Try to notice the all the feelings you experience, such as your feet hitting the ground if running, or the rhythm of your heart and your breathing. By adding this mindfulness element—really focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise—you’ll not only improve your physical condition faster, but you may also be able to interrupt the flow of constant worries running through your head.
So how much do I need to do?
Depression and anxiety can present some challenges within our own minds in terms of not being able to get motivated, and whilst I will cover this in a bit more depth in another post, in general the amount of time required to provide the much needed boost is probably not as much as you think.
You don’t need to devote hours to training at the gym, taking endless cardio sessions or running daily marathons. You can reap all the physical and mental health benefits of exercise with 30-minutes of moderate exercise five times a week, and even better, they can be broken into smaller chunks.
If that still seems intimidating, don’t worry. Even just a few minutes of physical activity are better than none at all. If you feel you don’t have time for 15 or 30 minutes of exercise, or if your body tells you to take a break after 5 or 10 minutes, for example, that’s okay, too.
Start with small sized chunks of exercise of 5 or 10 minutes and slowly increase your time when you feel you are ready, or as part of a goal you might set with your Life Coach. The way our bodies adapt and benefit from exercise means the more you exercise, the more energy you’ll have, so eventually you’ll feel ready for a little more.
The key is to commit, through Life Coaching goals, to some moderate physical activity—however little—on most days, and as you build a new neural pathway representing exercise and it becomes a (good) habit, you can slowly add extra minutes or try different types of activities, but this is not a part time of fad you take up for a short period of time. You have to keep at it for the benefits of exercise to begin to pay off.
If you are wondering what exactly 'Moderate' means when it comes to exercise, it has been shown in recent research that for the majority of us, it means:
- That you breathe a little heavier than normal, but are not out of breath. For example, you should be able to chat with your walking partner, but not easily sing a song.
- That your body feels warmer as you move, but not overheated or very sweaty.
Why not give it a go and see how quickly you feel the benefits? Talk with your Life Coach or Personal Trainer if you have one, who will also add extra motivation for you to succeed, or simply look up the huge amount of information available online to determine a routine for yourself. Be aware that not everything you read will be ideal for you as an individual though, so where possible, try and find a good (see my previous post on Life Coaches) Coach to help you, or if you ARE going to head to a gym, exercise class or health club, ask the coaches there for advice.
Remember to take is slow and build up. No-one likes those nagging injuries that come from overdoing something or not preparing properly.
Check back in next week for more on exercise and well-being.