Does Exercise Improve Mental Health? | How & Why it Works!
It's pretty common that when you go to the doctor you get asked about how much exercise you are getting as one means of evaluating your overall health. However, it is rather uncommon to get asked about this in the therapy room...and I think there is something very wrong with this!
With so much evidence supporting the overwhelming positive effects that exercise can have on mental health, I think that this is a subject worth exploring much further. I wanted to have this conversation in an effort to start removing the shame around the fact that many people either do not exercise at all or they do not get enough of it. While it's pretty obvious why we can be so aversive to exercising (let's be honest, sometimes it down right sucks!) shifting the focus to how it helps is crucial.
I think the approach should rather be on focusing on the mental health benefits and how it can help us minimize or eliminate the use of medication, living without aches and pains, and living longer, more fulfilling lives. If our purpose of exercising is to not have to rely on pills to make us feel better and to live more years disease free then I think we would all be more apt to moving our bodies more.
Exercise has been proven to improve mood, increase focus, improve concentration, help with sleep, increase libido, reduce stress, and help us strengthen the body which, in turn, helps to strengthen the mind creating mental and emotional toughness.
Studies have shown that those who both experience sensitivity to anxiety (are more prone to panic attacks) and exercise regularly experience less anxiety symptoms overall when they engage in regular physical activity. What's been found is that since physical activity mimics some symptoms of panic attacks (i.e. increased heart rate, increased perspiration, and increased breath rate) regular physical activity can actually rewire the brain to begin associating these symptoms with safety versus danger.
For example, individuals who do not engage in regular physical activity are more likely to interpret these symptoms as perceived danger and panic will result. If the brain is trained to experience these symptoms to interpret them as safe, a panic attack does not result. The brain gets trained through regular physical activity.
Here are some things you can begin doing to improve your mental health through exercise:
1) Get a minimum of 150 minutes of exercise per week (30 minutes 5x/week for moderate exercise and 20 minutes of vigorous exercise 3x/week)
2) Take short, frequent breaks throughout the day (stretch, walk around, take a short walk)
3) Start walking and work up to brisk walking
4) At-home workouts via YouTube or join a virtual gym membership (TONS of options during COVID - I like Heather Robertson, Yoga with Adrienne, Burn Bootcamp, Shape)
5) Get variety in your workout - it's easy to become bored and it's important to avoid injury
6) Do something that is fun and you'll be more likely to stick with it
7) Take breaks - let your body recover so you can go at it hard again once you're back to 100%
Examples of moderate exercise: walking, dancing, barre, yoga, pilates, zumba, swimming, canoeing, golf, hiking
Examples of rigorous exercise: High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), weight lifting, strength training, jogging.running, tennis, most contact sports
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Blue Sage Counseling and Wellness, and the information provided by Ashley Francis, is solely intended for informational and entertainment purposes and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis, or treatment regarding medical or mental health conditions. Although Ashley Francis is a licensed marriage and family therapist, the views expressed on this site or any related content should not be taken for medical or psychiatric advice. Always consult your physician before making any decisions related to your physical or mental health.