Physical Activity and Mental Health

We previously talked about how exercise is medicine and how it can help manage or control a number of chronic diseases. When people think about chronic disease, I think they tend to think about the physical (diabetes, obesity, heart disease, etc.) but exercise can also help with mental health. Exercise is known to help reduce anxiety, depression, negative moods, stress, and increase self esteem and cognitive function. In fact, just 5 minutes of moderate activity can lead to an improved mood. 

Dr. Blumenthal at Duke University compared the effects of home based exercise, supervised effects, standard antidepressants, and a placebo on participants with major depressive disorder. After 4 months, he found that the exercise and antidepressant groups had the highest remission rates (ie. They weren’t experiencing severe depression anymore) compared to the placebo group. He followed up one year later and he found that the more active participants still had lower depression rates.

How does it work?

There are a couple different ideas on how exercise can improve mood. One idea is that exercise is a form of exposure treatment. If you think about it, exercise is really not a pleasant experience – your heart rate increases, you breathe hard, you’re sweating, there’s a build up of lactic acid… All of these symptoms are similar to the fight or flight response we experience when faced with a challenge or danger. By experiencing these symptoms more regularly in a positive or controlled context, it can reduce your sensitivity to them and leave you feeling more equipped to handle it in a situation of stress or anxiety. 

Exercise can also help by increasing serotonin or those feel good endorphins (remember Elle Woods? “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands”). Exercise also helps to improve your sleep quality and brain derived neurotrophic factor, both of which can have a protective effect. 

Movement vs Exercise

I think it’s important to discuss the difference between movement, physical activity, and exercise here. If you are experiencing mental health problems, the idea of starting a whole new exercise regime can be very overwhelming. Reframing it as just trying to move more can be helpful. Movement is just moving around in life – it’s not necessarily purposeful or structured, planned, it is just any kind of physical activity. For example, walking to the bus stop or taking your dog for a walk is classified as physical activity. Exercise is structured and planned and has a purpose or set goal to it. For example, increasing your cardiovascular fitness or building muscle mass. Most people use these terms interchangeably but they’re actually quite different. 

For example, if it only takes 5 minutes for a mood boost, taking a 5 minute walk to get your coffee around the block instead of going to the closer coffee shop down the street or in the bottom of your office building can be enough physical activity to see a benefit. 

Reframing your goals as just trying to be more physically active or moving more can make them seem more manageable. Once you become used to moving more and you are noticing the mood changes and the immediate changes that go along with that. Once you get used to moving more, then it might become easier to start a regular exercise regime. 

by Lauren @beneFIT Lifestyle

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