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Why Physical Activity Improves Mental Health

When we think about treating mental health disorders, the first image that might pop into our heads is a bottle of antidepressants. Americans are accustomed to solving anything that ails us with a pill for this and a pill for that. Struggling with depression, get some Prozac. Anxiety issues, get some Xanax. This pill-popping mentality may be so ingrained in us that we rarely consider the one item that could provide an amazing amount of relief from the symptoms of a mental health disorder—a pair of sneakers. 

Why Physical Activity Improves Mental Health

Yep, the humble athletic footwear can become a powerful “drug” that provides tangible mental health benefits. Of course, no one can argue with the physical health benefits that regular exercise offers us. The list of the positive effects of physical activity is long indeed. But how many are aware of the enormously valuable impact that exercise has on our mental health?

These days, mental health practitioners are busting out of the predictable treatment protocol of routinely prescribing psychotropic drugs and psychotherapy, and beginning to incorporate physical fitness into their patient’s treatment plan. The evidence of multiple mental wellness benefits derived from exercise is impossible to ignore, and savvy practitioners are embracing it as a treatment element that complements conventional methods.

The Relationship Between Physical Activity and Mental Wellness

It is like a vicious cycle. Maybe we are down in the dumps struggling through a weeks-long depressive episode and all we want to do is lie in bed or stare at the TV. We are fatigued, sad, and have no motivation to do anything, much less exercise. Inactivity only makes us feel worse; we might gain weight, struggle to get a good night’s sleep and feel physically weak and tired. With the depression sapping all our energy, of course, we don’t want to get up and exercise.

The same case can be made for anxiety disorder. Perhaps intense fear and worry have left you housebound. Anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety disorder, naturally lead the person toward isolation. So there we sit, behind closed doors, frozen on the couch day after day. Fear of encountering an anxiety trigger leaves us housebound and inactive. And then we feel even worse.

Breaking out of this cycle—where the mental health issue inhibits our physical activity level and holds us captive—is the key to improving overall wellness. But first, you have to put on those sneakers and take the first step. To help inspire you, consider the ways that a little exercise will boost your mood.

6 Ways That Exercise Enhances Mental Health

To gain the most benefit from exercise, it is suggested that, at minimum, three sessions of 30-60 minutes per week are required. Depending on your fitness level, that leaves a wide range of options. Someone who has not been active for a while might start with three 30-minute walks per week, which will still produce mental health benefits. 

While weight training or high-intensity interval training can be excellent options, cardio, or aerobic, activities are best for optimizing mental health. These activities might include running, walking, jogging, cycling, hiking, spin class, cardio dance such as Zumba, and swimming. No matter what fitness level you are at, just pick an activity or two and weave them into your routine. 

While you are out there being active, pay mindful attention to the sensations you experience—the wind on your face, the warm sunshine, the sound of your shoes on the pavement. Use the time to reflect, pray, or give thanks for even more mental health payoffs.

Here are 6 ways that exercise will improve your mental health:

  • Elevates Endorphins. Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, hormones that help boost mood. In addition to the endorphins, exercise also stimulates the release of brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which also play a role in regulating mood. 
  • Improves Sleep. Regular physical activity can help you fall asleep faster and lead to more restorative sleep by inducing longer periods of deep sleep. Deep sleep helps improve immune function while controlling stress and anxiety.
  • Increases Energy. Exercise helps create more energy in the body on the cellular level. This explains why those who have been sedentary feel so lethargic, while those who are active feel energized. More energy equates to improved mood.
  • Boosts Confidence. Just accomplishing a goal, such as working out on a regular basis and not quitting, can boost feelings of self-confidence. It feels good to follow through and make the effort to do something productive for yourself, which improves mood.
  • Improves Brain Health. Exercise helps the brain by increasing the blood supply that delivers oxygen and nutrients. This leads to better brain functioning and crisper neural connections, as well as increasing the volume of certain brain regions.
  • Reduces Stress. In addition to producing endorphins, physical activity can also reduce the body’s stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. This can help individuals who struggle with anxiety disorders, as well as alleviate mild depression.

Exercise and Dual Diagnosis

Those who struggle with a mental health disorder and a coexisting substance use disorder, referred to as a dual diagnosis, will benefit greatly by adding regular exercise to their post-rehab recovery plan. In addition to helping recovering addicts restore their physical health, exercise can benefit the co-occurring mental health disorder as well as reduce the risk of relapse. Stress is a significant risk factor for relapse, especially in early recovery, and regular physical activity can help manage stress, along with all of the benefits named above. 

Whether you prefer a solitary or social workout, there is a physical activity for everyone. If you are not accustomed to exercising, start small. Take a walk around the block each day and slowly add on more distance over time. Resist that little voice that tries to keep you sedentary. Just get up and go – you will feel better day-by-day. 


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John T. Kahal is the founder and CEO of Solutions 4 Recovery,  follow him on Twitter.



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