Do you feel happier after exercise? Heard of the saying ‘runners high’? Well it turns out exercise can really make you happier.
Just 10 minutes of light exercise has been shown to have a short-term impact on the hippocampus, with a long-term impact after just 12 weeks.
A recent study published in the JAMA Psychiatry journal supported the theory that physical activity is an effective prevention strategy for depression.
Despite the fact that one in four of us will experience mental illness, and despite that most of us are aware that exercise can help ease the symptoms, many of us are still pretty inactive.
In fact, NHS figures for 2018 showed that 66% of men and 58% of women aged 19 and over met the recommended aerobic guidelines of 2.5 hours of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week.
#1 It helps you de-stress
According to Mayo Clinic, physical activity increases feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain producing that euphoric feeling you get when you exercise that is sometimes referred to as “runner’s high.”
These endorphins produced from exercise can reduce stress, make it easier to manage and lead to a deeper sense of relaxation. Stress can stem from many different sources and be expressed in different ways, so catering your exercise to your own source of stress is important.
Mayo Clinic also found that exercise helps you rest and relax more effectively when necessary. This is so important because knowing how to manage your stress and when it is time to unwind and let loose is a valuable tool to both positive mental and physical health.
Combine your workout with a relaxation activity by trying exercises such as yoga, pilates or tai chi. If your stress causes you to have muscle tension as well, weight lifting is a great activity to try out to release that negative energy. You could even work weight lifting into your relaxation activity by trying a fit yoga session.
Although depression is one of the most common mental illnesses, it is also highly treatable, with an 80% success rate according to the a study from the Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance in 2015. Exercise is one of the most successful treatments.
Research has shown that regular exercise is the equivalent or even better than certain antidepressant drugs commonly used to treat depression. This is because exercise produces natural antidepressant effects by lowering the rates and hindering the symptoms of depression.
Exercise increases levels of feel-good chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine that people suffering from depression have lower levels of. By working out, areas of you brain are stimulated by these feel-good chemicals, giving you a positive euphoric feeling. Exercising regularly has also been shown to cut depression rates almost in half, from 16.3% to 8.3%.
Go for a run or walk outside with a mate. For depression, workouts that are high intensity and greater in length work the best. Working out with a companion keeps you accountable and inspired, and being outdoors gives you the benefit of natural light therapy.
“Exercising regularly has also been shown to cut depression rates almost in half, from 16.3% to 8.3%”
#3 It lowers anxiety levels
Population Services International reported that anxiety is the most common mental health issue in females, affecting one-third of all women in the world.
According to Hibbert, exercise decreases tension and worry by reducing muscle tension, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and increasing alpha waves in the brain to put you in a more relaxed and tranquil state of mind.
As a result, exercise can be seen as literal medicine for an anxiety disorder because it calms you down and relaxes your mind. Aerobic exercise has been shown to stimulate a sense of well-being in those with anxiety and the benefits can last up to three months.
Seek out low to moderate intensity exercises that are not competitive since high intensity exercise can actually increase anxiety symptoms. It is important to start slowly, avoiding vigorous activity right away, and work your way up to it. Swimming is a great exercise to try because it combines cardio benefits with a sense of relaxation.
#4 It lifts a bad mood – really fast
Exercise is the best thing you can do to raise your spirits when you’re having a bad day. Studies show that regular physical activity is a more powerful and effective treatment for improving your mood when you’re having a bad day than any other relaxation techniques or enjoyable activities.
According to a study from Mayo Clinic in 2012, exercise improves mental clarity and efficiency, allowing you to think more clearly. Coupling that with the ability to reduce tension and increase energy results in a better mood overall.
A study from 2001 also stated that exercise is absolutely one of the best ways to improve your mood quickly. So if you need that quick fix, getting out and moving is your best bet.
Go for a long bike ride. Cardio is best to get out of a slump because of its ability to raise your heart rate and get you moving. Biking is a great way to get your heart rate up while also boosting your spirits by being outside in nature and enjoying the day.
A study done in 2006 said that exercise improves intuition, creativity, and assertiveness while also giving you a stronger overall enthusiasm for life.
A lot of self-esteem issues have to do with body image which sometimes makes people shy away from exercise, ashamed that they are not good enough.
But Hibbert says that by exercising, you will naturally start to feel better about yourself, not only liking how you look physically, but also feeling better about and appreciating your mind and body along with obtaining a better sense of self.
Find an exercise that eliminates space for any kind of negativity. Yoga or pilates are great exercises because they are meditative and really help you focus on yourself for awhile and leave all your worries behind.
“Walking during brainstorming can boost creativity by 60%”
#6 It prevents cognitive decline
According to Hibbert, aerobic exercise increases oxygen flow to the brain and decreases brain cell loss, resulting in increased cognitive activity. This makes you think more clearly and efficiently both during and after a workout.
The Alzheimer’s Association says that engaging in physical activity improves focus, planning and thinking skills, and can also boost one’s social health if done with another person, so finding a workout buddy can give you even more added benefits.
Research shows that regular exercise is correlated with higher IQ scores and that mental gains in cognitive decline through exercise done early continue through middle age and far beyond. Start as soon as you can because although exercise cannot eliminate cognitive decline, it can kick-start massive preventative measures.
The great thing here is that as long as you are moving your body, you are already starting the prevention process. One study found that walking during brainstorming instead of sitting has been found to boost creativity by 60%, so use your lunch break to go for a stroll and come back with a fresh mind.
#7 It strengthens relationships
Relationship issues are among the most common types of problems that people deal with worldwide, as they affect everyone at some point in their life. Exercise can be a beneficial tool to strengthen all relationships, no matter the type.
Hibbert explains that couples who exercise together spend more time together and therefore tend to have a healthier communication, especially if they use their exercise to talk about their relationship in ways such as going for an evening walk or joining a sports team together.
Studies have shown that exercising with your partner can increase physical gains by facing the challenge as a team, which can lead to more excitement and happiness surrounding your workout and create a stronger desire to exercise.
Mayo Clinic research also found exercise to increase sexual intimacy and said that a healthy sex life is correlated with exercise because it leads to a heightened sense of closeness between partners.
Not only does exercise improve the quality of sexual intimacy and social health in couples, but it has been shown to strengthen family relationships as well. One study found that mothers and daughters who partook in a 12-week exercise program agreed that their relationship had improved as a result of the physical activity.
Exercising with a family member leads to healthier communication in that particular relationship. Get out and play catch with your children or simply take a daily walk with your partner to chat about your day. Whatever you choose to do, make sure the activity is not too vigorous; communication needs to be involved.
#8 It helps deal with difficult emotions like grief, heartache, loss and fear
All of these emotions can feel extremely overwhelming when you are consumed by them. By exercising, Hibbert explains the benefits of endorphins and serotonin levels in the brain that are increased by exercise are especially helpful in treating symptoms of grief.
Studies show that exercise works as medication to improve and normalize neurotransmitter levels to get you feeling back to normal and happy again. The endorphins and levels of serotonin in the brain are increased, making it easier to feel better about yourself even if the bad feelings are still on your mind.
Exercise helps to process these powerful emotions and channel the energy elsewhere. Hibbert suggests that including affirmations and telling yourself that if you move your body, you can move your emotions can be helpful as well. Exercise serves as a great distraction from negative feelings as well leaving you to focus on your well-being for that time.
Working out in a group class can boost your spirits and give you a built in support system. Try something with a higher intensity like Zumba or HIIT to have a fun workout that will be sure to boost your spirits and participating in a larger group can give you an amazing sense of community.
8 Keys to Mental Health Through Exercise by Christina G. Hibbert is available on Amazon for £12.99.
Christina G. Hibbert is a clinical psychologist and bestselling author.
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