Can Exercise Improve Your Mental Health?

A popular running shirt says “Running is my Prozac”, and many runners claim to have a “runner’s high” after a good run. Is there truth to the assumption that running or other forms of exercise can improve your mood and therefore even help your mental health? Actually there is a surprising amount of research to support these claims!

A newsletter from the esteemed Mayo Clinic suggests that regular exercise helps ease depression in a number of ways, which include:

  • The release of chemicals, such as endorphins (dopamine, serotonin and others), that can ease pain and depression, and cause a positive feeling in the body similar to morphine
  • Reduction of immune system chemicals that can worsen depression
  • Increase in body temperature, which may have a calming effect

In addition, the Mayo clinic suggests regular exercise may help you gain confidence, reduce anxiety, as well as improve coping skills – all of which can naturally boost mood and feelings of well-being.

Other research suggests that regular workouts can prevent cognitive decline, boost brainpower, and even sharpen memory and increase creativity. In fact, in one brain scan study, Japanese scientists found that the brains of older men who exercised regularly were almost as efficient as those of younger men. In addition, these scientists also found that aerobically fit older men’s brains used fewer resources when thinking than out of shape younger men’s brains. Further, several studies found that weight training can also impact the brain in a positive way. For example, healthy older women who completed light weight training for a year showed fewer and fewer lesions in their brain’s white matter, which is critical for memory and thinking.

As we come into the winter months, depressed mood becomes more of an issue here in the northeast because of the decrease in light, the cold, and the increased time spent indoors. In order to combat depressed mood, two studies identified that regular participation in aerobic and resistance exercise just twice a week could lead to a significant decrease in depressed mood. In fact, regular exercise was found to lead to a remission in clinically significant depression for people who were not experiencing relief from an antidepressant alone! On the opposite side, maintaining a sedentary lifestyle can increase your perception of stress, which will negatively impact your mood.

It seems that the research is quite clear: regular exercise can improve your physical health, brain function, and mental health. So in addition to psychotherapy, exercise and healthy eating may be very helpful in enhancing your mental health by reducing anxiety and depression.

Now that we know the ‘whys’, here are the ‘hows’:

  • Be realistic. Don’t begin an exercise program expecting to achieve significant goals quickly. For example, if you decide to join a running group, don’t expect to run a 5k your first time out. Instead, aim for a level you can maintain for about 30 minutes. Definitely try to find something you enjoy (even if you have to try a few different forms) so that you are more likely to stay with it, and aim to do some form of aerobic exercise at least 3 times a week.
  • Set reasonable goals. Does it seem that New Year resolutions focus heavily on losing weight or “getting in shape”? Part of the reason these resolutions disappear as fast as we make them is that they are the wrong goals. Don’t tell yourself that this is the year you’re finally going to join the gym to lose that 40 pounds. Instead, join the gym and tell yourself that you are going to begin a new lifestyle that will improve your health and longevity for the long haul. This way, making it to the gym for three days one week and one the next doesn’t derail you. You are still maintaining a healthier lifestyle than you were before… so the next week, you can again walk into the gym and continue to set a new habit. In the meantime, you’ll be losing that 40 pounds.
  • If you are more extroverted, you may benefit from a group fitness experience. Whether it’s joining a running group or taking a cardio class like Zumba, exercise and social support have both been shown to be beneficial for those experiencing depression. Group activities may even push you to work harder than you would on your own.
  • Workout smarter, and maybe harder… but only for a short time. Adding interval work – a few minutes of intense work followed by a lower intensity recovery period, and repeat – will increase the bang for your buck… and you don’t need any equipment. A study presented at the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting in 2011, showed that two weeks of high intensity interval training (HIIT) was as effective at increasing aerobic capacity as six to eight weeks of endurance training. Plus, interval training has been shown to increase your caloric burn rate both during and for the 24 hours after training, over regular endurance training.
  • Add resistance training. Many people are overwhelmed by free weight areas of gyms.   However, there are a variety of ways of doing resistance training. These can include body weight exercises (where you perform exercises like squats or chair dips using only the weight of your body as resistance), weightlifting machines at your gym, or free weights (like dumbbells, barbells, kettle bells, medicine balls, or resistance bands). It may be helpful to use a certified trainer to introduce you to the options and help you succeed by developing proper form so that you don’t injure or burn yourself out.
  • Avoid fads. TV ads are always advertising some new gimmicks or program guaranteeing great abs in just minutes a day.  Not only do these not work, they usually end up in a closet. Stick with simple solutions that are maintainable and you’ll see results.
  • Finally, avoid diets – they never work. Just eat smart! Start by eliminating sugar, refined products, and especially fast foods. These are not only bad for your health, they will significantly and negatively impact your mood. Set yourself up for success by shopping (on a full stomach) for healthy foods for the week. This includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, and some snacks. Healthy foods do not include Lean Cuisine™ or other packaged meals, but instead any fruit or vegetable you can think of, hummus, whole grain bread, nuts, beans, oatmeal, lean proteins, low fat dairy, and protein mixes for after those great workouts.
  • Don’t focus on the amount of calories in these foods, but instead focus on putting together well rounded meals and eating slowly (when you are hungry) to the point of satiety rather than fullness.

For more information, sign up for a workshop on how to incorporate diet and exercise to improve your mental health.


Updated: November 9, 2016 — 10:49 am
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