If you’re here on the PKRS.AI blog, we probably don’t need to tell you about the physical benefits of exercise – everything from strength and stamina, to combating heart disease and diabetes, to bolstering your immune system – physical fitness is key.
But as society is beginning to tear down the stigmas surrounding discussing mental health, it’s increasingly important that the fitness world begins to have those same conversations. Realizing that exercise habits and mental health go hand-in-hand is a great place to start!
When it comes to the mental health benefits of exercise, there are a huge amount of variables to consider and countless physiological and chemical interactions to study and factor in. No two bodies are exactly alike, and neither are two minds – we simply have not reached the point where a specific exercise, intensity, and duration can be prescribed to solve a specific mental health issue. But in broad terms, we can say with certainty that exercise is good for your mental health in general – and here’s how.
Mood and Depression
Researchers try to develop the connection between exercise habits and mood enhancement by first looking at broad, population-based studies to gain a general understanding, and then delving into more detailed, experimental studies to test more specific hypotheses. In a broad sense, data suggests that active people are less likely to be depressed than inactive people, and that those who were active but then stopped or slowed their activity levels were more prone to depression than those who maintained their exercise routine.
In a more detailed study, clinical psychologists at Duke University placed sedentary adults with major depressive disorders into one of four groups – supervised exercise, home exercise, antidepressant medication, or a placebo pill control group. After four months, the antidepressant and exercise groups had improved their depression at a similar pace, while the control group stayed the same; one year later, those who had continued their exercise beyond the study reported even further improvement. When it comes to mood and depression, it seems that regular, consistent exercise has the potential to be both preventative and curative.
Don’t neglect the short term, either! The release of feel-good chemicals around your brain and spinal cord can be responsible for a mood lift in as little as five minutes after working out. However, for a sedentary person (depressed or otherwise), throwing yourself into a high intensity workout may do more to hurt your mood than to help it. Running until you vomit, straining so hard that you hurt yourself, or even just pushing yourself a little too far can mitigate the “feel good” chemicals and overload you with negative thoughts, damaged self-esteem, and yet another reason to dislike exercise. Research suggests that slow and steady is ideal for long-term improvement – 30 minutes of low-medium intensity exercise, 5 days a week, for 10-12 weeks if you’re starting from scratch.
Panic and Anxiety
Many of the physical sensations that coincide with panic and/or anxiety attacks can be “created” through exercise; elevated heart rate, elevated blood pressure, sweating, dry mouth, dizziness, and so forth. In situations of panic or fear, this is due to the fight-or-flight response releasing adrenaline and preparing the body to act. Now, using exercise to trigger sensations of anxiety will not sound particularly appealing to the anxious mind, but through regular exposure to those sensations in a safe place like the home, neighborhood, or local gym, the body can adapt and begin to treat those sensations as just that – feelings – and not cause for panic.
In a study at Southern Methodist University, researchers used CO2-enriched air to simulate the physical symptoms of a panic attack for anxiety-prone individuals. Unsurprisingly, the elevated heart rate, dry mouth, and dizziness caused the anxious people to descend further into panic. However, the anxiety-prone subjects who also reported a high level of physical activity were less likely to have their mood affected by the physical symptoms. This is not to suggest that exercise cures anxiety by any means, but it seems that exposing the body to physical stress (exercise) in a safe place and on a regular basis can help to condition the body and calm the physical reaction to physical symptoms. You may still experience anxious thought cycles, but with greater physical conditioning comes a potentially more controlled response to physical symptoms.
Self-Esteem and Beyond
The least controversial topic of all, self-esteem being boosted by exercise and physical fitness is almost a given. There is less clinical research in this realm, partly because self-worth is difficult to have people measure accurately, but also because it just seems so obvious! Self-esteem is a key indicator of mental wellbeing and one’s ability to cope well with stressful events in life. How you value yourself is unique to you – everyone has a different formula, a different expectation or standard, and different priorities. However, physical fitness and appearance play a significant role, especially in cultures like the United States where athletic performance and physical appearance are celebrated virtually 24/7. There is a significant correlation between obesity, diabetes, and depression linked to low self-esteem, and it’s not unfair to suggest that exercise could be a cure to all three.
Much of this article covers the benefits of exercise for mental health in a clinical sense; those of us suffering with mental health issues might find immense relief by turning to exercise. But many of these learnings still apply to people on every range of the exercise and mental health spectrums. Maintaining your fitness routines can be crucial in managing everyday stress, keeping your body and mind healthy and working together, and mitigating the potential onset of mental health issues later in life, including dementia and cognitive decline. So if you’re not exercising, give it a try – just take it slow and steady and don’t expect an instant fix. If you’re already exercising, keep it up, take it to the next level when you’re ready, and don’t neglect the other aspects of your life; remember to socialize, eat well, and sleep like a champ.
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