Major depressive disorder affects around 17.3 million Americans, or about 7.1% of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year. Furthermore over 40 million adults in America (19.1%) have an anxiety disorder.
Increasingly, a scientific consensus is emerging that a major contribution to these mental disorders may be sedentary lifestyle and a lack of exercise and the effects these two things have on brain chemistry and structure.
Improving your mental health is one of the many health benefits of exercise and medical and mental health professionals frequently recommend exercise in a treatment plan for depression and anxiety.
The correlation between regular exercise and a decrease in depression symptoms has been studied and supported in several studies and some researchers even claim that exercise is more effective than common treatments for mental health conditions such as medication or cognitive behavior therapy.
When humans work out, the body produces chemicals called endorphins to reduce stress and pain. Exercise can make us feel optimistic, confident and enhances your sense of well being. Regular exercise can also be linked to dopamine. For example, a study about the “runners high” that runners experience found that the euphoria and extra energy that is experienced during a run is caused by a release of dopamine.
Perhaps the greatest value is found in exercise over a sustained period of time. This kind of activity causes the releases of neurotrophic proteins which cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. This leads to improvements in the functions of the brain and can make you feel better in your day to day life.
Within the brains of people who have depression the region that regulates mood, called the hippocampus, is not as big as people without depression. Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, which improves nerve cell connections and ultimately helps to alleviate the depressive symptoms. Just like medication can help to alter the brain chemistry to treat mental health conditions, the chemicals that the body releases during exercise can help to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
People with anxiety and depression often isolate themselves and limit social interaction. If you join a sports team or group exercise class then the social aspect can be good for mental health because you are beating social isolation and even simple forms of social support can be very beneficial for improving mental health. It can be even more beneficial than a solo workout because being in a team setting provides a support network that encourages participants to exercise frequently and feel like they are a part of something bigger. It adds an element of accountability because if you exercise alone then bad mental health symptoms might be more likely to make you give up whereas if you exercise with peers you will feel encouraged to continue with the exercise.
The type of exercise that improves mental health isn’t limited. It can be exercise such as running, cycling, lifting weights or playing a team sport. However, it can also mean any kind of activity that gets the heart pumping such as walking around the block or gardening for an hour.
Any physical activity that gets you off the couch or out of bed can significantly help with improving mood and mental health. If committing to a strenuous activity seems too overwhelming then work towards adding small amounts of physical activity throughout the day.
For example you could opt for taking the stairs rather than the elevator or park slightly further away from destinations so you increase the amount you are walking.
Doing 30 minutes of exercise three to five days per week may cause significant improvements in depression or anxiety symptoms, but even lesser amounts of physical activity such as 10 minutes may make a difference. The highest benefits to mental health from exercise come from sticking to it long term and creating exercise habitat and routine so it is important to find physical activities that you enjoy and will stick with.