The Mind-Boosting Effects of Exercise: How 30 Minutes Can Improve Your Mental Health
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Exercise has been described as “free medicine” for a reason: it helps you maintain a healthy body weight, can reduce your risk of certain chronic diseases, and keeps your heart healthy. What many people don’t realize is that the benefits of exercise extend far beyond your physical health. Exercise is fantastic for your mind, too. If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, or high levels of stress, exercise can transform your mental health. Plus, scientific research shows that any person -- regardless of age, gender, or fitness level -- can benefit from increased exercise. It’s all a matter of finding the exercise routine that fits into your life to maximize your mental health benefits.
Understanding the Common Roots of Mental Health Problems
In any given year, 18.5% of American adults experiences some form of mental illness, with depression and anxiety being most common. That’s 1 in 5 people, each and every year. Millions more suffer from chronic stress due to work, school, family difficulties, or other psychosocial problems. As a result, depression, anxiety, and stress are leading causes of disability and lost productivity for our society. On an individual level, these mental health problems can be profoundly distressing, affecting every aspect of your everyday functioning.
Scientists continue to research the links between depression, anxiety, and stress to understand their common underpinnings. A few things are clear. First, genetic factors place some people at higher risk for mental health conditions. Despite this, genetics do not explain 100% of the equation. A person might have genetic risk or a family history of mental health problems but not experience these difficulties him- or herself. Second, depression and anxiety share some common features. Both conditions are associated with negative emotional experiences, maladaptive thought patterns, and unhelpful behaviors that keep a person “stuck.” Finally, depression, anxiety, and stress share neurobiological underpinnings. In all of these conditions, levels of certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters become disrupted.
Although nothing can change the genes you were given, exercise can alter your brain chemicals and tendency to get stuck in a pattern of unhelpful thoughts and behaviors. Understanding the mental health benefits of exercise can help you experience improvement in depression, anxiety, and stress.
Exercising is a Form of “Behavioral Activation”
One of the core components of cognitive-behavioral therapy for depression is “behavioral activation.” When you feel depressed, you may naturally find yourself withdrawing from activities you used to enjoy. Unfortunately, this reduces the amount of joy you get from life and can make you feel like you will be stuck in your depression forever. Behavioral activation combats this feeling of “stuckness” by helping you engage in value-driven activities. Exercise has many intrinsic values: it triggers an immediate mood boost, makes you feel as though you have accomplished something, and improves self-esteem. Thus, committing to exercise will help you begin to counteract unhelpful thoughts and feelings, pulling yourself out of the pit of depression.
Exercise Causes a Neurochemical Cascade in the Brain
Exactly how exercise improves depression and anxiety is not fully understood. Numerous studies in non-human animals have shown that physical activity boosts levels of norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. These neurotransmitters regulate a variety of brain functions. For example, norepinephrine is important for regulating sleep and wakefulness. As a result, exercise can help you get a good night of sleep and feel rested in the morning. Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter for the brain’s reward system, meaning that boosting its levels gives you a natural “high” feeling. Finally, serotonin is a mood regulator that is disrupted in both depression and anxiety. Importantly, common antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications target each of these neurotransmitter systems. This means that exercise truly can resemble medicine -- it has similar neurobiological effects as prescription medications for these mental health problems.
Aerobic Exercise Alters Your Emotional Regulation Brain Circuits
In addition to altering the levels of certain brain chemicals, exercise results in long-lasting changes to brain circuitry. Although the exact mechanisms underlying this change are unclear, animal studies show that exercise results in increased activity in the limbic system, the brain circuitry responsible for emotional regulation. Preliminary evidence in humans suggests the same. This means that exercising may result in long-term changes in the structure and function of brain circuits that govern your emotional responses. As a result, you may feel more emotionally steady and less prone to mood swings or exaggerated emotional reactions to setbacks.
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Exercise Inoculates You Against Stress
Researchers have studied the effects of exercise in people of all ages, from childhood through older adulthood. The overwhelming evidence suggests that frequent physical activity buffers against stress. Exercise stimulates alterations in the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA) system, which is responsible for managing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This is doubly good news, as high levels of stress and circulating cortisol have been associated with higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Thus, exercising now to lower your stress can have major payoffs later in life.
Mind-Body Exercises Have an Even Bigger Effect on Mental Health
Traditional aerobic exercises such as cycling, running, or swimming get a lot of attention for their mood-boosting powers. More recently, however, the spotlight has turned to mind-body exercises such as yoga, tai chi, or Pilates. These exercises combine physical movements with a meditative or mind-focusing component. This results in a mind-calming effect that has been shown to reduce levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. Although mind-body exercise should not completely replace aerobic exercise, it can be an excellent adjunct to aerobic and strength-training exercises.
What Kind of Exercise Counts? Maximizing Your Exercise Benefits
Let’s face it: when you’re feeling depressed or anxious, starting a new exercise routine is probably the last thing you want to do. The good news is that you don’t need to log huge amounts of exercise each day to see a mental health benefit. Starting small and building your way up is the best way to gain a sense of mastery and improve your mental health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults aim for a combination of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and muscle-strengthening for two and a half hours per week – or 30 minutes of exercise 5 times per week. If that seems like a lot, don’t worry! You can harness the mood-boosting effects of exercise with just 10 minutes of aerobic activity at a time. Start today by aiming to get 10 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise. This means that your heart should be beating faster than usual, but you should not experience an intense level of physical exertion. Consider taking your pet for a walk, playing a game of tag with your kids, riding your bike around the neighborhood, going for a jog, or practicing yoga.
Once you have established a routine of spending 10 minutes exercising each day, it’s time to push yourself a bit. Whether you spend a 30-minute block of time or three 10-minute blocks exercising is up to you. Just choose an activity you enjoy and stick with it. Enlisting a friend to be your exercise partner is a great way to ensure that you keep your momentum. Soon, you may notice an improvement in your mood and anxiety, decreased stress levels, and long-lasting benefits for your overall quality of life.