Exercise as Medicine
Benefits of Physical Activity on Mental Health

Think of exercise as a free mood-boosting pill. Physical activity helps to release certain feel-good chemicals in the brain. These include dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.1 Medications like anti-depressants typically also help to increase the same chemicals.

In addition to increasing neurotransmitter levels, physical activity can help to reduce feelings of stress in a person’s life. Moving the body helps to release muscle tension and lift a person’s mood. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), exercise also helps to improve memory and brain functioning. Altogether, many mood-boosting benefits of exercise can make it vital to both physical and mental health.

Mental Health Benefits of Physical Activity

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), doctors have shown that physical activity helps to treat the following health conditions:

  • Addiction
  • Anxiety
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • Eating Disorders
  • Grief
  • Relationship problems
  • Schizophrenia

A study published in the September 2018 edition of the journal The Lancet found that people who exercise reported 43.2 % fewer poor mental health days than when compared to people who didn’t exercise.

The study’s authors also found it didn’t matter what type of physical activity or if a person was active longer than 30 minutes a day – simply exercising was enough to help a person boost their mood.

Why You Should Consider Regular Exercise as Medicine for Recovery

How Exercise Helps Treat Addiction

A few small sample size studies have found that physical activity can help those who struggle with mental disorders. According to a Harvard University study, regular group exercise can help a person stay sober longer.

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Some of the reasons that physical activity may help reduce the incidence of addiction and substance abuse include:

  • Reducing cravings for drugs and alcohol
  • Adding purpose and structure to a person’s day
  • Connecting to positive social groups
  • Reducing the incidence of depression and anxiety that can co-occur with addiction

It’s important to note that doctors don’t suggest physical activity as the only treatment for addiction. However, it’s a good supplementary treatment that can help overall health.

How Exercise Helps Depression

According to the Mayo Clinic, physical activity can help treat depression by releasing feel-good chemicals in the brain.In addition to the neurotransmitters listed above, physical activity helps to release endogenous cannabinoids, which are chemicals in the brain that can lift an overall sense of well-being.

Focusing on physical activity also helps a person take their mind off depressive thoughts. Exercise is an example of a positive coping mechanism that can help manage depression or anxiety. Exercise at a gym or even joining friends for a walk also provides social interactions that can help lift a depressed mood.

How Exercise Helps Anxiety

An estimated 40 million adults in the United States struggle with anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). The ADAA reports that people who engaged in regular exercise were 25 percent less likely to develop an anxiety or depressive disorder over the next five years.

Doctors think in addition to the mood-boosting chemicals, physical activity helps to “train” the brain to better cope with feelings of stress. However, even one session can help reduce feelings of stress.

How Exercise Helps PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that affects an estimated 3.5% of adult Americans and 7.6% of military veterans, according to an article published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.

The same journal article reported that light-intensity physical activity (like walking) helped to reduce the incidence of PTSD symptoms. Surprisingly, moderate to vigorous physical activity did not. The article summarized several studies that found exercise alone or physical activity in combination with other PTSD treatments (like counseling or medications) can help to reduce PTSD symptoms.

How Exercise Helps ADHD

According to an article in Current Psychiatry Reports, physical activity may be especially helpful in treating young people with ADHD.

Adults with ADHD also found physical activity helpful in treating symptoms of ADHD. The journal found that exercise helps to promote functional development and brain growth that may support better management of mental health and ADHD.

How to Get Started Exercising

If you haven’t exercised in a while, it’s easy to think of reasons to not to start (even though there are lots of reasons why it’s good for you). NAMI suggests creating a “thought record” of positive thoughts related to exercising that can help change the way you feel about physical activity. An example includes frequently repeating, “I know if I exercise today, I will feel less anxious and have more energy.”

You may have to try several different exercise types to figure out what works best for you. What one person enjoys may seem like an uphill battle to others, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t enjoy your first few attempts. If it’s been a long time, starting small with walking or riding a bike is a good option.

If you find it hard to stick to a regular routine, try taking a class, so it’s built into your schedule. An additional benefit to attending a class is accountability to a group who looks forward to seeing you.  Classes also provide unique opportunities for movement like dance or yoga. There is likely a class that will interest you if you think about what physical activity you would like to learn. If you struggle to find time to fit in classes, there are now workout videos on YouTube that can help you get movement in. There are lots of options where you can start to get fit.

If you’re having a hard time getting motivated or staying motivated, talk to your therapist or doctor. Therapists and doctors can help you identify how physical activity can fit into your overall mental health “prescription.”

Types of Exercises for Mental Health

A person doesn’t have to be an elite athlete to exercise, and it doesn’t have to take up an excessive amount of time. Exercising 10 to 15 minutes at a time for a total of 30 minutes a day can help anyone enjoy the mental and physical benefits of physical activity.

Examples of some exercise types that can help a person include:

  • Yoga
  • Walking
  • Riding a bicycle
  • Lifting weights
  • Taking an aerobics class

Even gardening can be a physical activity that can help address struggles with mental health.

Exercise Regularly for Your Mental Health

Remember: The most effective exercise is the one you’ll do consistently. Starting a program and finding something you love to do can boost your overall mental health as well as physical health. If you’re not sure where to start, talk to your doctor to get some tips based on your overall health.

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