It is well known that exercise is important for our physical health and can improve and reduce risk for conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. But did you know that it can play a major role in our mental health as well? In a time where mental health issues are at an all-time high, exercise may be a great option for helping to cope.
A few of the most common mental health issues are stress, anxiety, and depression. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports 44% of Americans suffer from moderate to high stress with an increase in the past five years. Per the Anxiety and Depression Association (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults or 18.1% of the population each year. Lastly, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide with more than 16.1 million Americans having major depressive disorder.
So, how can exercise help?
Physical activity helps to improve mood by increasing the release of endorphins, your body’s natural painkiller and feel-good hormone. This endorphin boost is often referred to as a “runner’s high,” but can result from activities outside of running like hiking in nature. Regular exercise has also been found to reduce symptoms commonly associated with depression, such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal.
Intense exercise is also thought to mimic the stress, or “fight or flight,” response in the body making us more apt to handle mental and emotional stress when it occurs. Exercise does this by increasing cortisol (our "stress" hormone) levels in the short term, which then causes reduced levels later in the day or evening. This can also help to improve our sleep, which is often negatively impacted by stress. Exercise raises the core body temperature, which then falls post-work out. This fall in temperature helps make for a better night’s sleep. Weight-lifting is especially effective in improving the ability to fall and stay asleep throughout the night.
Additionally, studies have found that people report feeling more calm after 20-30 minutes of activity, lasting for several hours post-workout. This may be in part because exercise helps us to be more mindful. Focusing on our movement and breath can take our mind away from the daily worries and irritations, helping us to feel more calm, clear, and content. Practicing mindfulness outside of physical activity is a great mental exercise to try as well!
Wait, there’s more?
Exercise has also been linked to improving alertness, concentration, and overall cognitive function. Exercise can even improve and preserve your memory! This is thought to be because aerobic exercise increases blood circulation to the brain, including centers that help control memory formation, in addition to motivation, mood, and stress response.
Let's get moving! The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week and strength activities are encouraged twice per week. This might seem like a lot of time, but it does not have to be completed all at once. You can start small and slowly work your way up to these goals, which could look like a 30-minute walk five times per week. Keep in mind every bit counts - even five minutes of aerobic activity can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.
Learn more about mental benefits of exercise and other wellness programs offered by Wellness Workdays.
Written by: Abbey Jones, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern