Most people are aware that a regular exercise routine is an important part of overall health and wellness, but did you know that it can improve your mood? Few things can help people to cope with a hard or stressful day like walking through a park, going to the gym, jogging around the neighborhood or playing a sport. Many mental health professionals now believe that this connection between mood and movement may have larger applications beyond physical fitness. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, physical activity increases the natural production of a chemical in the brain called endorphins, which essentially act as natural painkillers. Endorphins also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.
Exercise therapy is the concept that physical movement and the use of muscles throughout the body can be a beneficial option in treating various mental health disorders and it’s gaining traction with mental health professionals. Many patients experiencing major depression or anxiety can find both short and long-term relief from their symptoms through physical exercise in combination with traditional treatment methods. Some therapists are even starting to take their patients for a walk during talk therapy sessions as a way to help in the treatment process. Based on broad, population-based correlation studies, “There’s good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people. And people who were active and stopped tend to be more depressed than those who maintain or initiate an exercise program,” says James Blumenthal, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Duke University. This reinforces the idea that for some individuals, overcoming the urge to stay in bed on a bad mental health day may not actually be the best solution. Taking time to relax and unwind is important and can be helpful to an extent, but pushing yourself to get up and get moving is often more beneficial in the long run. Even just taking a brisk ten-minute walk can help to alleviate some of the most common symptoms of depression, anxiety and various other mental health disorders.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the United States, and affects 40 million adults, or about 18 percent of the population annually. Additionally, exercise can serve as exposure treatment for individuals experiencing anxiety, as it can help patients learn to associate their symptoms with safety and positivity as opposed to danger. Researchers are now focusing on determining the efficacy of medication versus exercise therapy to determine whether it is more impactful to combine the two or if they work equally well independently.
Even if you don’t have a diagnosed mental health disorder, you can still benefit from the effects of physical exercise. This is especially true if you are looking for easy ways to help manage stress and potentially decrease your likelihood of developing a mental health disorder. In one study, researchers found that those who got regular vigorous exercise were 25 percent less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over the next five years. We know that stress affects the brain, with its many nerve connections, and as a result the rest of the body feels the impact. Research shows that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. So next time you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, try taking a few minutes to get up and get moving and see how it can help.