Everyone knows exercise can do a body good. But did you know that it can help your mental health as well as your physical health? A growing body of evidence is beginning to show what many fitness experts have suspected all along — even a short workout every other day can help ease the effects of depression, anxiety and social isolation, and can make the mind more resilient in the face of chronic mental illness.
In addition, a study published by the National Institute of Health reports that people suffering from various forms of mental illness who don’t exercise have a higher risk of chronic diseases associated with sedentary behavior.
Here are five ways exercise can improve your mental health, and some ways you can easily get started today.
Exercise helps with depression
If you’ve ever felt happier after a workout, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that exercise can help relieve depression. and the more often you exercise, the more you can keep depression at bay.
In fact, a study by researchers at Duke University found that exercise was at least as effective as antidepressants in fighting depression. In the study, one group of participants received Zoloft, a second group participated in moderate exercise, and the third did both. All three groups improved on measures of depression, though not surprisingly over the long term, the exercise-only group showed the least number of relapses in depression.
“Depressed patients that exercise enjoy increased self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment, a renewal of goals to engage in more self-discipline, and a relief of depression symptoms such as apathy, sluggishness and fatigue,” says Nora Aisenberg, a psychologist at the Center for Holistic Medicine. “Medical health and psychological health cannot be separated, that is why holistic treatment considers both the mental and physical aspects of our health.”
Exercise helps with anxiety
Just as endorphins help make you feel happier, they can also make you feel more calm, as well, which can relieve anxiety symptoms.
Aisenberg says patients who suffer from anxiety will find that participating in light exercise helps reduce the “flight or fight” reaction in stressful conditions and allows the brain to experience calm and relaxation.
It’s also believed that anxiety is eased by exercise through distraction, enhanced self-awareness, and the psychological benefits of increased social interaction.
Exercise reduces stress
Chronic stress is known to contribute to the development of mental illness and is the source of many other physical health problems as well. Think of exercise as an anti-stress “vaccine” that can moderate the impact of stress on the brain.
In addition to boosting your endorphins, which reduces stress, exercise can also give you a break from the stressful aspects of your day. By simply focusing on exercise for even a few minutes, many people report being distracted from their problems with a meditative period that can provide clarity or reduce the urgency of day-to-day issues.
In addition, when stress does occur, an exercise-conditioned brain and body are better able to resist the increase in stress hormones like cortisol that are common stress responses.
Exercise can improve your sleep
Good quality sleep every night is vital for the body and mind to repair and recharge in order to face every new day. Unfortunately, poor sleep can worsen the effects of depression and anxiety.
A study published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity shows that people sleep significantly better and feel more alert during the day if they get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week. Among adults in the United States, about 35 to 40 percent of the population has problems with falling asleep or with daytime sleepiness.
Low impact exercises like swimming and bicycling are great ways you can make an investment in a better night’s sleep.
Exercise can improve your self-esteem
The Center for Holistic Medicine’s Nora Aisenberg says regular exercise is one of several aspects of good self-care, which can all have a big impact on an individual’s self-esteem.
“A combination of exercise/activity and yoga/meditation/relaxation are an essential part of daily self-care,” Aisenberg says. “It is no secret that this is the road towards a healthy and balanced sense of well-being. Just embrace the journey of gradual restoration of good health without comparing your goals to anyone else. Getting healthy isn’t a competition, it’s a mindset.”
How to Get Started Exercising
Are you out of shape? Think you’re too busy to start an exercise regimen? Don’t worry. Physical activity of any kind can have a positive impact. Something as simple as 15 to 20 minutes of gardening or walking can have an immediate impact on mental health.
Getting up and into motion doesn’t need to be difficult or time-consuming. Even something simple like tossing a frisbee back and forth with a friend (or dog) can help.
A good start would be the new to try the new Self Defense for Body-Mind Fitness class, held on Wednesdays from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. at the Center for Holistic Medicine. Taught by Josh Willner of Sunny’s Martial Arts and Fitness, the class will help develop confidence and personal power through a blend of Krav Maga, jiu jitsu and taekwondo. Call 847-236-1701 for more information.