Exercise and Mental Health

We’ve all heard about the many benefits of exercise – living longer, decreasing risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. But how does exercise impact mental health?

Good news – it can help! In several different way too. And while it wan work quickly to improve symptoms, it can also change the conditions in the body that contribute to depression and anxiety, leaving you overall healthier, more balanced, AND feeling better emotionally.

Many people recognize the immediate benefits of exercise on mood.  Exercise causes the release of endorphins and enkephalins, the body’s feel good hormones.

Exercise can also have immediate benefits through an increase in mindfulness – the act of paying attention to the present moment.  Many forms of exercise require you to focus on what your body is doing and since our brain isn’t great at focusing on two things at once, this requires us to let go of ruminating thoughts about the past and anxious thoughts about the future and be present in the moment.

Exercise that involves others also has benefit, as social interaction can improve emotional wellbeing.  Also, exercising outdoors incorporates the mental health benefits of time in nature (Read more).

Beyond these immediate benefits, there seem to be longer-lasting effects. Regular exercise increases the size of certain brain regions which may be relevant to depression. Studies have demonstrated an anti-inflammatory effect of exercise. This is important because there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that mental illness, and a wide range of other illnesses are related to increased levels of inflammation. When inflammation levels are high, they amino acid tryptophan is converted into kynureinine instread of serotonin (one of our brain molecules that support mood.  The inflammation also causes increased breakdown of serotonin. (Read more about it in a previous post!)

And the clinical studies where patients are prescribed exercise show benefit.  High quality studies have demonstrated a reduction in depression symptoms in patients with major depressive disorder either alone or in combination with anti-depressant medications. There is also a documented improvement in anxiety and psychosis symptoms

Now the hard part – we know that exercise is important but how do we make it happen? I get it, it’s tough. Our lives are busy and low motivation can be a symptom of mental illness, making it extra tough to get started or stick with it. Personally, I'm not someone who LOVES to exercise so I am a HUGE fan of the 7-minute workout.  It is really quick (who doesn’t have 7 minutes?) and doesn’t require equipment or cost any money. Click here to check it out.  Other forms of exercise incorporate other mental health benefits such as mindfulness (yoga, tai chi), social interaction (a weekly walk or hike with a friend, a fitness class) and nature (kayaking or a walk or run in a conservation).

If you need help adding exercise to your routine, let me know! I’d be happy to help.