Helping News                                                   May, 2021   Issue 152

A major study confirms that regular physical activity—and it doesn't have to be a lot—improves mental health. So get moving!

Elizabeth Michaelson Monaghan, April 2021

Exercise and Depression

Study participants who’d ever been diagnosed with depression had nearly 11 days of poor mental health a month. But the exercisers in this group had just over seven days of poor mental health.

Chicago-based freelance writer Micco can attest to the power of working out. She’s benefitted greatly from weight training, as well as from the medication she takes for depression and anxiety: “I really think weight training releases feel-good chemicals in my brain, but I also think there’s a mental shift that happens when you see what your body is able to do and you take a moment to bask in that,” she says. “It’s hard for that confidence not to translate into other areas of your life.”

“I have a mental illness. I’m always going to have a mental illness,” Micco adds. “My life is very different when I’m not on medication, and I’ve known that for a long time. But weight training has definitely proven a useful tool in managing my mental health—on or off medication.”

Some doctors encourage patients with mental health conditions to exercise. Lynn is a New York-based freelancer who takes an anti-depressant in the winter for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and exercises regularly. She recalls, “The psychiatrist who prescribed Zoloft for me was the first person to tell me I needed to exercise aerobically for 25 minutes, at least five times weekly, for the medication to be effective.”

How Exercise Boosts Mood

Researchers have proposed (and studied) several theories about how physical activity might trigger mood improvements. Exercise may:

1.Subdue responses from both the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the hormonal feedback system that reacts to stress.
2.Work like an antidepressant, increasing levels of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) like serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, thus boosting mood.
3.Prompt the release of endorphins, naturally-occurring opioids produced by the body.
4.Enhance people’s sense of self-efficacy (belief in oneself as capable), which reduces anxiety.
5.Distract from thoughts and stressors, which also reduces anxiety. 

More Moving Is Not Necessarily Better

You don’t have to run a marathon to boost your mental and emotional wellbeing, and perhaps you shouldn’t. While more vigorous exercise provides greater benefit than light or moderate physical activity, people who work out for between 30 and 60 minutes, three to five times a week, have the lowest mental health burden. A 45-minute session appears to be most effective.

“We were quite surprised to find the effect we saw in terms of duration or frequency,” Dr. Chekroud observes. “Typically, it’s been thought that more exercise is better for your health, but this maybe suggests that, at least for your mental health, this isn’t necessarily the case.” In fact, the researchers found that people who exercise for more than six hours a week have a higher mental health burden than those who exercise three to five times a week and exercising for more than three hours at a time is associated with worse mental health than not exercising at all.

Why is the 45 minute, three-to-five times a week workout so therapeutic? “It’s possible this is because those durations are easier to fit into normal routines without taking over too much, encouraging people to stick with it for long enough to have any possible benefits manifest,” Chekroud offers.

Whatever the reason, some vigorous physical activity may be just what you need:

 “Exercise always boosts my mood,” Lynn says. In fact, “Two days ago is a great example. I was very ruffled and had tons of anxiety. I got myself to the gym and got on the rowing machine for four minutes and the elliptical machine for a half hour.” After that brief session, “I left the gym feeling transformed. My anxiety was gone. I had more energy. My head was clear. I felt good. I got home and got to work.”

So, if exercise for weight loss doesn’t motivate you, perhaps moving for your mind will!

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