Exercise Helps Your Mental Health, Depression & Anxiety: Now What?

At least once, your doctor or therapist has probably urged you — get out and exercise more. It’s the kind of simplistic advice that professionals feel good about doling out, because it’s so easy to do. Exercise helps improve your mental health, and can reduce anxiety and depression symptoms.

But as anyone who’s heard this advice knows, it’s so much easier to recommend than do. While exercise can help our mental health, it can be hard to put into action without motivation. Moreover, a person who is depressed or anxious may find motivation, well, lacking.

The Antidepressant Effects of Exercise

Decades’ worth of research into the effects of exercise has demonstrated its help in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. The World Health Organization (WHO, 2015; WHO, 2001) and the NICE guidelines (NICE, 2013) recommend implementing physical exercise in the standard treatment of depression. A recent meta-analytic review of the scientific research (Kvam, et al., 2016) found that the positive effects of exercise on depression symptoms is especially strong when a person isn’t seeking any other kind of treatment:

Findings from the current meta-analysis indicate that exercise is an effective intervention for depression compared with various types of controls. The effect of exercise as an independent treatment is evident, and the effect is particularly high when compared to no intervention.

Thus, exercise may serve as an alternative for patients who do not respond to a given treatment, patients who are awaiting treatment, or those who for different reasons do not receive or want traditional treatment.

We also know that lots of people never receive treatment for depression. The utilization rates for mental health treatment of depression vary from a low of 30 percent in the European ESEMeD study (Sevilla-Dedieu et al., 2011) to 55 percent in the U.S.-based NESARC (Hasin et al., 2005) study.

So for a great many people with depression, exercise offers hope alleviating their symptoms. (The evidence for exercise helping people with anxiety is decidedly more mixed; see Bartley et al., 2013 for a review.)

The evidence suggests that there are a couple of reasons why exercise may help. It may benefit our immune system and general, overall health. Researchers aren’t exactly certain of the specific mechanisms involved, but one of them may be helping to improve an oxidant-antioxidant imbalance (Roh, et al., 2016). It may also be because exercise releases neurochemicals in our brain that make us feel good (such as endorphins).

Exercise’s Psychological Benefits

In addition to the physiological and neurochemical impact exercise has on us, it also has a number psychological benefits, including:

  • Clears your mind
    It’s hard to disconnect from our always-connected world nowadays. As long as you turn off your alerts, turn on your music, and focus on what you’re doing, physical activity can help you take your mind off of your worries.
  • Improves your self-esteem
    Exercise and physical activity keep your body fit, which in turns helps to keep your mind fit. When you do things to help improve yourself, you feel better about yourself.
  • Better sleep
    It appears that regular physical activity helps to regulate the two main mechanisms that control the quality of our sleep — circadian and homeostatic rhythms. More exercise means better sleep, which in turn means better mental health.
  • Increase social interaction
    While exercise doesn’t have to be a social activity, if you do engage in it socially, you’ll benefit from the social interactions you have during it as well.
  • A healthy way to cope
    There are many ways to cope with the stress in life, but physical activity is one of the healthiest. It can allow you to cope more effectively with life’s frustrations without hurting yourself or others.

Related: The Psychology of Exercise and Fitness

So How Do I Get Started with Exercise?

The most important thing about exercise isn’t that you do it at the gym, or you do a specific kind of exercise, or you do it for exactly this amount of time. The most important thing about physical activity is simply that you find something you enjoy doing and do it regularly, at least every other day.

If you like the gym, that’s great. But if like me, you’re not into going to the gym, a daily walk for 60, 40, or even just 20 minutes can be helpful. (That’s the secret benefit of the augment reality game Pokemon Go — it gets people out walking.) Bicycling, yoga, walking, running — anything that involves regular physical activity works.

People sometimes stress out about the need to exercise, and build it up into something big and daunting. It should be nothing of the sort. It’s just an activity that you should try and build into your daily (or every other day) routine, just as you’ve automated brushing your teeth and getting dressed.

Think about all the unusual, simple ways you can do more exercise by simply making different choices in your daily life, too. Instead of taking the elevator up two floors, why not take the stairs? Instead of driving down to the local shop or cafe, why not walk or bike to it? What about playing more with your kids or family, engaging in more physical activity or games that require movement?

Motivation to exercise can be a show-stopper. Understand that if you turn exercise into a daily beast that must be overcome, it may quickly become overwhelming.

Instead, look at it as a simple, daily thing you want to add to your routine. Find rewards that work for you — it could be as simple as playing Pokemon Go or another exercise app. Or the rewards could be something larger, such as when you reach your 10,000 steps for the day, you treat yourself to an afternoon smoothie or Starbucks. Find a rhythm that works for youand then stick to it. Enlist trusted, supportive family, friends, or others struggling with exercising regularly (through apps) to help keep you to your new routine. Exercising with a partner can help boost your motivation, too.

You got this. Exercise is a boon to your mental health and depression symptoms. Find a routine that works for you to incorporate it into your life, and you’ll start to gain the benefits of exercise within just a few weeks.

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