Medications, therapy, or a combination of both are the most common forms of treatment for a mental health disorder like depression. Numerous studies show, however, that psychotherapy and antidepressants aren’t the only ways to improve mental health.
According to Harvard Medical School psychiatry assistant professor Dr. Michael Craig Miller, exercise can work as well as antidepressant medications but cautioned that exercises alone are not enough to fight severe depression. High-intensity exercises, in particular, are known to release endorphins (also known as the body’s “feel good chemicals”), while regular low-intensity activities are linked to the release of neurotrophic or growth factors, which aid in improving brain function.
Those who suffer from a mental health condition such as depression are typically encouraged to take up any form of physical activity to reduce symptoms. Still, some may remain skeptical and ask, “Does physical activity really affect mental health?”
The benefits of exercise
Indeed, it does.
The many benefits of exercise to one’s physical health are well-known. Exercise improves and prevents diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Regular exercise is actually a major factor in improving cardiovascular health; those who do burn calories are likely to achieve an ideal weight, resulting in healthier cholesterol levels, improved blood circulation, and lower blood pressure. Moreover, it improves one's physique, as well.
In fact, according to a study published in JAMA Cardiology, exercise offers immediate and relatively long-lasting positive effects to the blood supply in a process called ischemic preconditioning, which ensures an adequate distribution of blood to different parts of the body, especially the heart.
Despite these physical benefits, many find it difficult to stick to an exercise routine, perhaps due to lack of time and/or energy. It could also be because they’re unaware of its mental health benefits. But there are some compelling reasons to consider exercising to improve mental health.
What exercises are best to improve mood?
The good news is that you don’t even need to purchase a membership to a fitness club to exercise. Any form of physical activity that you can commit to doing, whether in an organized environment like a gym or in the comfort of your own home, offers some benefits.
It’s actually more important to choose an activity that you like to do, specifically one that stands a better chance of improving your mood. Activities like jogging, swimming, brisk walking, gardening, and dancing have been proven to reduce anxiety, negative mood, and depression. The positive effects are known to increase blood circulation to the brain, which is linked to reducing stress levels. Exercising also provides a much-needed distraction from your current routine, promotes self-efficacy, and encourages social interaction, all of which contribute to improving your mood.
How often should you exercise?
A moderate level of exercise is ideal to improve mental health. According to a study done by researchers at Yale and Oxford Universities, 45 minutes three to five times a week yielded the biggest benefits. The finding, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, also emphasized that “exercise is associated with a lower mental health burden across people no matter their age, race, gender, household income, and education level.”
However, it should be noted that over-exercising poses some risks. The same study revealed that extreme amounts of physical activity — particularly beyond the aforementioned threshold — may worsen one’s depression and anxiety. Furthermore, exercising for more than 23 times a month or over 90 minutes per session, is associated with worse mental health.
What’s great about exercise is that it doesn’t have side effects. Naturally, overexertion may pose certain risks, but the types of exercises that you can choose don’t have to be strenuous. Ultimately, doing exercises based on the ideal frequency will result in benefits such as enhanced mood, better social interactions, and improved self-esteem.
Consult the mental health professionals at Meridian Psychiatric Partners LLC if you want to learn more about the best courses of treatment for conditions like depression. Get in touch today.