Mental Health Month: Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Kettlebell workout

Mental health month is a perfect time to reinforce your exercise habit. You may start exercise for your booty, arms, bones or muscle strength. While they’re worthy motivators, the mental health benefits of exercise may be what keep you coming back.

Mental Health Facts

Anxiety and depression are at their highest recorded levels in the U.S., as well as UK, India, and China due to the effects of our contemporary lifestyles. Women are significantly more affected by mental health issues than men until age 65 when risk evens up. Hormonal variations that start with menses and continue through post menopause are linked to the higher risk.

Treating Hormone Fluctuation with Hormone Stimulation

So if hormone fluctuation make a woman more susceptible to mental health issues, it makes sense that modifying hormones through exercise may help.

Mature Woman Doing YogaExercise is a well-known stimulator or endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good hormones. You’ve experienced the mental health benefits of endorphins if you’re in a better mood after a walk or a gym session. Add sunshine and a social factor to the mix and you up the serotonin boost. (More below)

Even yoga sessions in a darkened room can stimulate this feeling. There’s an added benefit of focus on something away from stressors and negative self-talk.

Serotonin, another feel good hormone, is also naturally released with exercise. Medication for depression and anxiety include Selective Uptake Serotonin Inhibitors (SSRIs). Boosting serotonin naturally with exercise and sunshine can reduce the dose or support weaning off of medications (under doctor’s supervision).

For women, exercise, sunshine, and venting with gal pals can be a powerful cocktail of mental health benefits.

More Effective Than Other Therapies

Exercise has been proven more effective than medication and cognitive therapies for treating depression and anxiety. A recent study proved exercise is effective in reducing anxiety and depression and improving fitness in previous methamphetamine (MA) medication users.

Exercise is now recognized as an evidence-based medicine for depression. Whether together with medication and cognitive therapy or alone, exercise is a definite part.

Mental health month action: Make your next 30 days (no matter when you read this) an experiment. Commit to a daily walk (or bike ride). Record your energy level and mood before and after using a simple 0-5 scale. If you’re new to exercise, begin with 10 minutes (proven to boost sleep quality by 33%). Eventually aim to get 20-30 minutes most days. If possible do this at the time of day when anxiety increases or mood drops. Get outdoors if possible.

Exercise as Medicine

Mature Woman Exercising at HomeExercise is Medicine was an initiative co-launched by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Medical Association with support of the Surgeon General in 2007.

The hope was to employ the authority of medical doctors to encourage more people to exercise. Unfortunately, the slogan has been more popular than the initiatives effects on activity levels. Still, the body of knowledge is growing that exercise prevents and or is a valid treatment for physical and mental health disease.

Clearly, exercise “therapy” is as effective as other forms of treatment for mild to moderate depression. Studies consistently show that physical activity can help treat symptoms of depression. And on the flipside, low activity levels are a big risk factor for depression.

How Does It Work?

The antidepressant effect of exercise is moderated in part through serotonin. That’s the brain chemical that’s targeted with some antidepressants, and in part through brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF).

Serotonin is your feel-good hormone. Need a hit? You can get the best dose of serotonin from combining exercise, sunshine, and venting. So hit the trails with a girlfriend often.

And this plays a large part in the generation of new cells in the hippocampus, an area whose “shrinkage” is linked to depression. Walking 40 minutes a day (no speed or intensity requirements) increased hippocampus size significantly.

Regular exercise, like medication, makes the brain more plastic: capable of growing new cells. Exercise may also work in part by reducing inflammation, which some researchers connect to depression and most other major disease.

Side Effects

Exercise is Medicine differs from medication in one very important way. There are no negative effects from exercise interventions while every prescription medication has negative side effects. Compare the side effects below:

Side effects of drugs:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Sexual incompetence
  • Weight gain

Side effects of exercise:

  • Improved sleep
  • Increased interest in sex
  • Better endurance
  • Stress relief
  • Improvement in mood
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Reduced tiredness that can increase mental alertness
  • Weight reduction
  • Reduced cholesterol
  • Improved cardiovascular fitness

Which “medicine” do you choose?

What Dose Do You Need?

Mature Woman Using WeightsIf exercise is medicine then you have to consider how much how often. The specifics for individuals are inconclusive at this time. Studies do show in some cases vigorous exercise supported more positive change than moderate exercise. Alternatively, a higher dose of exercise delivered in greater volume is also been shown more effective over lower dose.

So if you can do higher intensity, do it. If you’re limited in some way – or you know you’ll hate it – do lower intensity for a longer period of time. So you can either do high intensity intervals for 20 minutes or go for a 40-minute walk and choose your own pace. Don’t negate strength training or yoga, however. (More below)

The amount of exercise that supports your mental health may be personal. For women with family history of mental illness, lower dose of exercise proved most effective.

What type of exercise delivers the best mental health benefits?

Both aerobic activities and strength training have a significant positive influence on depression and anxiety. Yoga has been studied least but shows favorable results in stress management. Try yoga walking.

The good news is you can choose the activity you prefer for your mental health benefits. Aerobic activity (walking, biking, dance, etc.), strength training, and mind-body movement (yoga, Pilates, tai chi) will all support your mental health. Your physical body needs some of each. Your first step, however, is to start with activity you enjoy.

Take Action

Make any month a better mental health month. Start your personal 30-day challenge right now. Choose one activity to do daily for 30 days. Combine as many serotonin and endorphin boosters as possible. Sunshine, movement, and social engagement will do wonders for your mental health benefits.



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