Ready to Get Moving This Year? Six Ways Exercise Improves Your Mental Health
If you’re like most Australians, the dawn of a new year brings a commitment to better living, often accompanied by resolutions to lose weight, exercise more, and eat better. Sadly, though, most people abandon these resolutions by February, returning to old habits that harm their bodies and minds. If you’ve committed to exercising more this year, know that exercise isn’t just a way to stay healthy, lose weight, and achieve the body you want. Need a little additional motivation to ensure that this is the year you finally stick to your exercise resolutions? Check out these six incredible ways exercise can improve your mental health and well-being.
A Better Mood
Exercise releases chemicals known as endorphins when you workout to the point of exhaustion. These feel-good chemicals offer a near-instant mood boost that can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours after you exercise. For most people, the benefits of an endorphin rush – the culprit behind the phenomenon sometimes referred to as a “runner’s high” – begins within five minutes after exercising.
Alleviation of Depression
What if you don’t just want to improve your mood? There’s good news. Depression can be crippling, robbing you of your self-worth, your relationships, your motivation, or even your career. There’s good evidence, though, that exercise may be the magic ingredient in the recipe for combating the scourge of depression. One recent study found that three to five days per week of cardiovascular exercise was just as effective as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) – the most popular type of antidepressant – for treating depression.
Exercise can also help to alleviate chronic muscle pain, which can itself lead to depression, exhaustion, and other common mental health challenges. Additionally, exercise offers a temporary energy boost, which can be a powerful antidote to the lack of motivation that so many depression sufferers struggle with. To get the most benefits, shoot for at least 150 minutes of cardio per week, then commit to strength training – such as lifting weights or performing bodyweight exercises – at least two days per week.
Anxiety isn’t all in your head; instead, chronic worry and restlessness often causes physical sensations that are hard to ignore – a lump in your throat, a fluttering heart, butterflies in your stomach, and even diarrhoea and vomiting. We don’t yet fully understand how anxiety in the mind leads to anxiety in the body, but one thing is for certain: exercise helps alleviate both the physical and emotional symptoms of chronic anxiety. Some of this may be due to the feel-good rush of endorphins that often follows exercise. Alleviation of muscle tension through exercise may also help burn off so-called nervous energy, and it’s equally possible that regular exercise changes the chemistry in your brain. Whatever the cause, fitness experts recommend getting three to five days per week of cardiovascular exercise to get the most out of your fitness plan.
You might think more money, a different job, or a better relationship are the keys to happiness. Think again. Research suggests that sleep plays a vital role in mental health, and anecdotal evidence backs this up. Think about how well you function when you wake up in the middle of the night or are stretched to your breaking point of exhaustion. No one can function well with insufficient sleep, but about half of Australians struggle with insomnia or disrupted sleep at least once a week.
There’s good news, though. Regular exercise can help you fall asleep more quickly, sleep more soundly, and have fewer nightmares and disturbing dreams when you finally settle into your nightly repose. To get the most benefits, exercise for at least 30 minutes. It doesn’t matter what type of workout you choose, though, since anything from intense cardio to relaxing yoga can work wonders. Just make sure you exercise early in the day. Exercising within three hours of your bedtime can give you a burst of energy that keeps you up.
A Smarter Brain
You already know that exercise offers you more physical energy, but a mounting volume of evidence suggests that working out can also keep your brain motivated and moving. Exercise increases serotonin while enabling your body to regulate the prevalence of a wide variety of neurotransmitters associated with mood and intelligence. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that exercise can even make you smarter, with students who exercise doing better on a test than students who don’t, and adults who exercise having less difficulty recalling long lists of data. Exercise also:
Can help prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
May help reduce the effects of brain injuries.
Is correlated with better memory in old age.
Can help you overcome the effects of insufficient sleep.
Can help prevent stress from undermining your ability to concentrate.
A Better Body Image
Given that exercise can help you lose weight, it’s probably fairly unsurprising that exercise can also improve body image. The surprising thing, though, is that exercise boosts body image even when you lose no weight. This is likely because exercise boosts your sense of bodily self-efficacy, helping you see what your body is capable of rather than judge your body based solely on its appearance. In a world where more than 90% of women report being unhappy with their bodies, improving body image is no small feat.
Still struggling to get motivated? Counselling with a skilled therapist can help you gain insight into your barriers to physical fitness, giving you the final push you need to – at long last – get moving.