When we think about the benefits of exercise, we typically think about losing weight, getting stronger, looking better, or improving our heart health. We’re familiar with the physical benefits of exercising – and there are many! But, we may not realize that exercising also has a plethora of mental health benefits. Exercising builds confidence. It gives us a sense of accomplishment. We feel motivated, ready for the day, and sometimes… less anxious.
The Intersection of Physical and Mental Health
We experience the intersection of physical and mental health in a variety of ways. Before a speech, your heart may race. We have sweaty palms, we get shaky, we feel fatigue, and we can experience hormone imbalance – all of which are evidence of the strong and active connections between our physical and mental realities. There are negative connections (such as a pounding heart or sweaty palms) but there are also positive connections. When we improve our physical health through exercise, we can also improve our mental health in some ways. Don’t interpret this as a daily 5-minute jog being the cure for anxiety. It’s not that simple; however, research shows positive connections between exercise and mental health that we want to pay attention to.
Anxiety & Depression Improved by Regular Exercise
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that in one study, “researchers found that those who got regular vigorous exercise were 25% less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over the next five years.”
When we’re anxious, we often want to divert our attention from whatever is making us anxious. We may turn to a yummy dessert, we turn on the TV, or we search for another distraction. When we exercise, we’re engaging in an activity that requires focus and diverts our attention from whatever was making us anxious – in a positive way. It is easier to not just say, “I’m going to try not to be anxious today,” but also to substitute that anxious feeling with something. Exercise can be that “something.”
Harvard Health Publishing points out that, “Moving your body decreases muscle tension, lowering the body’s contribution to feeling anxious.” Why does a massage leave us feeling relaxed? Muscle tension has an affect on our mental health. It’s interesting that Harvard notes muscle tension as “the body’s contribution.” This indicates that the body contributes to anxiety – but also that the mind contributes as well. If we combine exercise with mental health services, we can really make gains to better control anxiety in our lives.
We know that a key component of effective exercise is its regularity. Rather than an exercising rollercoaster that changes depending on a variety of factors, regularity and consistency are what make exercise more effective long term. In the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, one research study summarized it this way: “Data regarding the positive mood effects of exercise involvement, independent of fitness gains, suggest that the focus should be on frequency of exercise rather than duration or intensity until the behavior has been well established.”
We know that several hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, are involved in stress and anxiety. These hormones put us in “fight or flight” mode, make our heart pound and prepare us if we’re being chased by a bear. We don’t want to be in a situation where these hormones are consistently high. Exercise is one way that we can reduce the presence of these hormones, thus lowering our stress levels. In their article on “Exercising to Relax,” Harvard adds that exercise “also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.”
When we consider the physical benefits of exercise, the way it impacts our hormones, the release of muscle tension, and the associated psychological impacts, we see that it definitely can’t hurt to regularly exercise. In fact, one of the most common things we hear from clients who respond well to anxiety and depression, is that regular physical exercise makes a difference. It serves as a “reset” to a mind that’s racing with worry, or a body that feels slowed-down and agitated. In the short-term, you’re experiencing the release of beta-endorphins that boost mood and energy. In the long-term, there seems to be a correlation with maintaining rhythms of physical activity and other healthy practices. A positive spill-over effect seems to occur that empowers other positive aspects of life like sleep, appetite, relaxing activities, and spiritual disciplines.
Don’t let Anxiety & Depression Win – Keep Moving!
We can be encouraged by the fact that we have the ability to create positive changes that impact our physical and mental health. If you aren’t regularly engaged with physical activity or exercise, consider increasing this little by little. Gradually build into a routine that seems sustainable long-term. You can challenge yourself, but be realistic as well. Being realistic will keep you from being overly disappointed when you cannot meet a goal that may have been a little too far-reaching, and also helps you build confidence in what you are able to do.
We understand that exercise is not completely a cure for anxiety, depression, stress, and other mental health concerns. As we see here, our bodies contribute to anxiety but are not solely responsible for it. Continue to invest in other ways to improve your mental health, even if you are already engaged in physical exercise.