5 Ways Exercise is Good for Your Mental Health

Exercising is one of the best things that you can do for your health.  It has been linked to preventing undesirable health conditions including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, back pain and obesity.  But those aren’t the only reasons to get out there and exercise.  Exercise also significantly benefits your mental health.  Here are five benefits you could be enjoying:

1. Better Mood

Exercise helps people feel better.  It elevates mood, and can even help prevent and treat depression.  Exercise is like a natural antidepressant, releasing serotonin in the brain.  It has been found to be as effective of a treatment for depression as antidepressant medications, and its effects are longer lasting.  Research has also linked regular exercise with increased self-esteem and people who exercise are more likely to see themselves as being competent.  And, to quote Elle from the movie Legally Blonde, “Exercise gives you endorphins.  Endorphins make you happy.  Happy people don’t shoot their husbands.  They just don’t!”  So there you go.  Exercise, be happy, and don’t shoot your spouse.

2. Less Stress

Exercise helps decrease your stress!  People who exercise regularly report lower stress and are more resilient to stresses in their day.  And for those diagnosed with anxiety, exercise has been found to help them perceive fewer things as threats and otherwise decreases anxiety symptoms.  This may in part be because exercise helps strengthen the heart and lungs, contributing to regulating their heart rates and breathing.  Research has also found that exercise can be as effective of a treatment for anxiety symptoms as some medications.

3. Better Brain Functioning

When you exercise your body, you are also benefiting your brain.  Exercise has been linked to increased memory, better focus and attention, and better academic success.  In one study, students who exercised achieved better grades in math and reading and had higher IQ scores.  One study found a correlation between gym membership and higher GPAs in college.  Exercise has also been linked with neurogenesis, or the growth of new cells.  This is associated with learning, and may have implications for avoiding Alzheimer’s.

4. More Self-Control

People who exercise regularly have better self-control.  Now, you might be thinking, well, maybe it is just that people with better self-control are more likely to exercise.  Touché.  But!  Research has found that people who were assigned to exercise for several months, when compared to another group who didn’t, ended up showing better self-control in almost every aspect of their lives: less drinking and smoking, more controlled eating, less compulsive spending, fewer angry outbursts, less procrastination and better study habits.  And in a study with elementary school students, those who exercised were less impulsive and less fidgety in class.

5. Less Misbehaving

Maybe it is a stretch to consider this “mental health”, but for you parents of young kids, it will probably help your mental health if you get your kids active! Exercise has been associated with fewer behavioral problems being reported in school in both regular and special education classes.  If kids (or adults) are getting out their energy, increasing their focus, regulating their impulses and activating their brains, they are less likely to be misbehaving.

Even if it is something small like going for a walk, that has been found to make a difference.  But for best results, find something of moderate intensity that gets your heart rate up.  So, what are you waiting for?  It’s time to make like a nylon and run.

Depression Treatment: Exercise vs. Antidepressants

exercise from wix

Nineteen million people are affected by depression and more than $86 billion is spent on anti-depression medication each year.  Since anti-depressants are the most well-known treatments for depression, many people turn there first.  But medication isn’t the only treatment option.  Therapy is an effective treatment for depression, both combined with medication, and independent of it.  I’ll write about therapy and depression for another day.  Today’s post is about a third option that costs less, is equally effective, and its effects last longer.  This secret treatment option: Exercise.  Several studies have found that regular exercise can be as effective as medical antidepressants in treating depression.  Are you intrigued?  Let’s look at some information on the two treatments and see how they compare.

Antidepressant Medication
Cost: Ranges from $21/month to over $1000/month
Time to wait for results: 6-8 weeks.  Some people report results within 2 weeks, but for most people, full effect takes 6-8 weeks.
Likelihood of being effective: 3 out of 5 people will see depression improved the first time they start taking medication
Side effects:  Negative side-effects can include an inability to sleep, dizziness, nausea, weight gain, increased anxiety, decreased sex drive and can lead to suicidal ideation.   According to a 2011 analysis conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 63% of individuals on antidepressant medication experience at least one side effect.

Cost: Running is free; average gym membership costs between $40-$50 per month
Time to wait for results: Unknown; comparative studies show results apparent at six weeks
Likelihood of being effective: 60% with low and mild depression
Side effects: Negative side-effect is the potential for soreness or injury
Additional benefits: Positive side-effects include decreased anxiety, improved sleep, increased energy, elevated mood, increased libido, weight loss, improved locus of control and enhanced memory.  Also, those who exercise, compared with those taking antidepressant medication, were found less likely to have relapsed ten months later (70% vs. 48%).

Exercise is a great low-cost natural antidepressant with additional health benefits.  It can be a great supplement to your current treatment, or it can be a great place to start if you have been experiencing depressive symptoms and haven’t yet sought help.  It is the first thing that I like to recommend to clients who present to therapy with depression.  Why not try something that is low-cost, that has been found to be as effective as medication, and helps you feel better in several areas in your life?  Even if you aren’t depressed, you can still reap the benefits of exercise.  So what are you waiting for?  Put on your running (or walking) shoes, and get moving!

If you are accustomed to a sedentary lifestyle or have a health condition, consult your doctor before starting an exercise routine.