Nearly one billion people all around the world have some form of mental illness, as per sources of WHO. The numbers are huge, right? We understand it might interfere with your quality of life and daily goals. But the good news is that you can always take some steps to boost your mental health, and one of them is exercise.
Many scientific studies prove that exercise benefits depression, anxiety and many other mental disorders. In fact, healthcare professionals now prescribe it as a treatment for many psychological disorders. Curious? Read on to know about its benefits and the best exercises for mental health.
Benefits of Exercise For Mental Health
Exercise may be the last thing you want to do when you are already dealing with emotional distress. But knowing how it benefits your mental health can motivate you. And once you get motivated to add workout to your daily routine, trust me your hard work will pay off. So let's begin, shall we?
● Lowers Anxiety
We all may feel anxious at times, and that’s what drives us to complete our tasks within a deadline. But the problem arises when a person experiences anxiety frequently for 6 months or more. This is called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD); its symptoms include fatigue, sleeplessness and irritability.
Besides medication and psychotherapy, exercise can lower anxiety and improve symptoms.
A 2018 study found that exercise is a viable treatment option for clinical anxiety. It also proposed that higher-intensity workout programs are far more effective than lower-intensity exercise programs.
● Helps Deal With Depression
Depression is a common mental disorder that affects nearly 5% of the population worldwide. People with this condition often have a depressed mood, low self-worth, lack of interest in most activities and suicidal thoughts.
Along with other therapies, engaging in regular physical activity can help people suffering from this illness. Infact, a study shows that exercise may be as effective as treating depression as other treatments. Its mechanism is unclear. But scientists think it may be because of an increase in the levels of a neurotrophic factor, which is responsible for cell growth.
● Helps Manage ADHD
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common mental illness. It occurs due to imbalancement of neurotransmitters like dopamine. The most common symptoms of ADHD include impulsiveness, inability to concentrate and hyperactivity.
Exercise works the same way as ADHD medication. It increases levels of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins in the body, which positively affect focus and attention. Plus, research shows that regular workouts can boost motor function and cognitive skills in adults and children with ADHD.
● Helps Treat PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that affects people who have experienced some sort of traumatic event. Patients suffering from PTSD may experience flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty concentrating and trouble sleeping. Besides antidepressants, exercise seems to be a useful treatment for PTSD.
A research article mentions that regular physical activity may even work in people who don’t get better with standard treatment. It helps your nervous system get unstuck and restore balance as you focus on how your body feels during exercise. Plus, it helps you manage other symptoms of PTSD, such as insomnia, depression and anxiety.
● Manages Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is a mental condition that causes severe mood swings, from low depressed states to extreme mania. It affects a person's ability to concentrate and perform daily tasks.
Experts now think regular physical activity is an effective alternative treatment for managing bipolar disorder. A 2015 study found that exercise reduces mood shits and improves well-being in people with bipolar disorder.
● Decreases Frequency of Panic Disorder
Stress and anxiety are the natural responses to a threat as it kicks in survival instincts. But it becomes a problem when you often have a sudden fear and panic attack, even without any apparent reason.
Along with medication and psychotherapies, exercise can ease up tension and reduce feelings of fear and worry. Apart from that, some studies suggest that regular workout can lower the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.
Even if you aren’t suffering from any clinical condition, exercise is still helpful for you. It improves your mental well-being by following ways.
● Boosts Self-Confidence
Regular workout helps you lose weight and maintain a smile. A positive image about appearance can increase your self-worth. Besides, meeting your fitness goals can help you gain a sense of accomplishment. A study published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment suggests that exercise may help people with lower self-esteem.
● Improves Sleep
Sleep has a profound effect on mental health. Poor sleep habits or hygiene can put you at risk of many physical and mental illnesses. Scientific evidence says regular physical activity can improve sleep latency and quality. So if you have trouble falling asleep, incorporating workout into your daily routine can help provide greater benefits.
● Enhances Cognitive Skills
Regular exercise positively impacts your memory and thinking skills. It does so by promoting the growth of blood vessels in the brain, thus improving brain health overall. Apart from that, regular physical activity can also help reduce cognitive decline in people aged 50 or above.
● Relieves Stress
All of us often feel stressed when we are under pressure or simply when things don’t go our way. It’s probably best to hit a workout session at the gym during this time.
Exercise alleviates stress by reducing the production of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Plus, it causes stress resistance which means it may help you avoid stress in the first place, according to a 2019 study.
Best Exercises For Mental Health
There are many exercises that provide great mental health benefits. But the best one for you is the one you like participating in the most. Still not sure where to start? Here is a list of our favorite workouts for your inspiration.
You would be surprised to know the benefits a simple walk offers. It’s the most affordable and accessible exercise you can do to improve your mental well-being; all you need is a good pair of shoes!
It is a low-impact aerobic exercise that can be done at any time of day. It boosts circulation, relieves stress, and increases mental alertness. Dr. Madsen, a clinical psychologist at Minds shift foundation, says walking outdoors is one of the non-drug related ways to control mental conditions like depression.
You should aim to walk for at least 30 minutes a day. But don’t get overwhelmed. If depression has made you lazy, you can take it slow. Remember, little physical activity is always better than none.
2. High-Intensity Interval Training
HIIT is a form of training protocol involving intense activity followed by a recovery or rest period. It’s best for people looking to do something challenging and want a boost of emotional well-being.
HIIT is quite challenging, but it pays off. Interval training for 30 minutes per week provides the same results as 150 minutes of conventional exercise. Scientific evidence suggests that HIIT can decrease anxiety, stress and depression and increase resilience to these conditions. It does so by enhancing the levels of a protein called BDNF that regulates brain function.
Yoga is the oldest form of exercise that focuses on meditation, deep breathing and stretching. It is like weightlifting for the brain. It develops new connections and strengthens the brain part involved in memory.
Studies showed that MRI scans of people who do yoga had thicker cerebellar cortex and hippocampus. These are brain parts that are responsible for memory and information processing. Apart from that, yoga helps reduce stress and anxiety and brings a feeling of calmness.
People think of pilates as an exercise to improve core strength and lose weight. But its founder, Joseph Pilates, believes that physical and mental health are linked together, and so do we.
Pilates revolves around breathing, focus and mindfulness to strengthen the relationship between body and mind. Karen Laing, a pilates instructor, says it’s an excellent exercise for stress reduction. Moreover, she adds that focusing on breathing can help switch on the body's parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation.
5. Tai Chi
Tai Chi is often called as meditation in motion as it focuses on meditation and breathing followed by poses. It is based on Chinese traditional martial arts.
There’s growing evidence that suggests tai chi boosts cognitive function, improves memory and reduces stress and anxiety. Moreover, it is a low-impact activity that’s easy on joints, making it ideal for older adults.
Swimming is one of the best outdoor activities that can provide comfort against anxiety and depression. As per stats, it helped 1.4 million adults in Britain by reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Besides, it's a good option for people with osteoarthritis as it puts less stress on joints than walking or running. And who knows, swimming might save your life one day.
Tips to Get Started With Exercise For Mental Health
We understand it might be overwhelming for you to add exercise to your routine with mental health issues. Here are some tips that will help you get started with exercise.
● Take it Slow
CDC recommends getting 150 minutes of exercise per week. I know that sounds scary to most of you, but don’t get intimidated by it. You can split these 150 minutes into 30 minutes of exercise per day. Further, break those 30 minutes per day into three 10-minutes workout sessions.
If you are just starting out, exercise for five minutes daily. Once your body gets used to it, increase the duration and intensity of activity.
● Take Part in Exercises You Enjoy The Most
Exercise is any activity that gets you moving. It can be taking your dog for a walk or cycling to a grocery store. If you are new to exercise, experiment with different exercises to figure out what works best for you.
● Reward Yourself
It’s one of the best strategies to stick to an exercise program. Not only does it help you feel better afterward, but it also motivates you to get out of your bed and start moving. A reward can be anything you like, like a hot bubble bath or your delicious food.
● Engage in Group Exercises
If you find it difficult to exercise alone, you can always take part in group activities, especially with your friends. Not only does it make exercise fun and enjoyable, but it also helps you stick to the exercise regime. Moreover, socializing is as important for mood disorders as exercise, a win-win situation for you.
Along with medications and psychotherapy, exercise is an effective alternative treatment for many mental illnesses. It helps boost mood, improve self-esteem, enhance cognitive function and reduce stress. Various exercises provide great benefits for mental health; doing the one you enjoy the most will help you stick to the exercise regimen.
● Banno, M., Harada, Y., Taniguchi, M., Tobita, R., Tsujimoto, H., Tsujimoto, Y., Kataoka, Y., & Noda, A. (2018). Exercise can improve sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PeerJ, 6, e5172.
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● Harvard Health. (2021, June 12). Yoga for better mental health.
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● Helgadóttir, B., Hallgren, M., Ekblom, R., & Forsell, Y. (2016). Training fast or slow? Exercise for depression: A randomized controlled trial. Preventive Medicine, 91, 123–131.
● Oppizzi, L. M., & Umberger, R. (2018). The Effect of Physical Activity on PTSD. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 39(2), 179–187.
● Tanner, M. K., Fallon, I. P., Baratta, M. V., & Greenwood, B. N. (2019). Voluntary exercise enables stress resistance in females. Behavioural Brain Research, 369, 111923.
● Thomson, D., Turner, A., Lauder, S., Gigler, M. E., Berk, L., Singh, A. B., Pasco, J. A., Berk, M., & Sylvia, L. (2015). A brief review of exercise, bipolar disorder, and mechanistic pathways. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.
● Vysniauske, R., Verburgh, L., Oosterlaan, J., & Molendijk, M. L. (2016). The Effects of Physical Exercise on Functional Outcomes in the Treatment of ADHD: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Attention Disorders, 24(5), 644–654.