Exercise is known to boost your mood, improve sleep quality (especially aid in falling asleep faster), better memory and cognitive function, boost self-esteem and confidence, improve insulin sensitivity, and more. All of these benefits improve mental health in many ways. For example, when your insulin sensitivity is improved it decreases your chances of developing certain chronic illnesses such as diabetes. When you sleep better, you can perform better in your everyday life and that will boost self-esteem and confidence. The more you feel capable and set and exceed your goals the better.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be in the gym for hours every day to achieve these benefits. Easy, daily exercise such as taking a walk (30 consecutive or nonconsecutive minutes) can provide these benefits and make it easier to build up an exercise regimen that can alleviate symptoms of mental illness and may potentially even be used as treatment in lieu of medication. Exercise is a great antidote to environmental and emotional stressors but little is said about how it truly impacts one’s mental health and how it helps to alleviate many symptoms of different types of moderate to severe mental illnesses.
First, let’s distinguish between mental health and mental illness
Mental health consists of one’s emotions, thoughts, and feelings, their ability to solve problems and overcome difficulties, social connections, and understanding their surrounding world. It is possible to have poor mental health without having a mental illness. Good mental health is more about living and coping well despite having problems and less about feeling happy and confident all the time.
Mental illness is an illness that affects the way you think, feel, behave, or interact with others. It’s possible to have good mental health despite having a mental illness diagnosis. Just like physical illnesses, mental illnesses are episodic. Not all people will experience a mental illness, but everyone will struggle with their mental health just as you sometimes struggle with your physical health. Mental health awareness has recently become more popular and accepted but, sadly, mental illness is still incredibly stigmatized.
When it comes to mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, exercise is often the best first step.
However, these conditions can make exercise extremely difficult. Many symptoms of depression can lead to a sedentary lifestyle and increased anxiety surrounding lifestyle changes. For the vast majority of people afflicted with moderate to severe depression and anxiety, medication (particularly a low dose) can help alleviate symptoms brought on by episodes, thus making regular exercise possible. While exercise and antidepressants have similar impacts on brain chemistry, it is important to repeat that symptoms of illness can make exercise nearly impossible and in most cases, it is more practical to prescribe a low-dose medication and encourage exercise after acute symptoms decrease.
Exercise is a low-cost way of managing symptoms of mental illness.
It has been shown to improve the quality of life of all those who incorporate it into their everyday life. Exercise is often a neglected intervention in mental health care despite the fact that those with a moderate to severe mental illness are more likely to be sedentary, therefore putting them at a higher risk of a chronic illness such as diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and cardiovascular disease. People living with schizophrenia are particularly vulnerable to obesity and weight gain as a side effect of taking antipsychotic medication.
When exercise is added to their daily regimen (taking ten-minute walks up to three times a day or participation in a group fitness class), symptoms of low self-esteem and social withdrawal decrease. The act of exercise is a tool of distraction, self-efficacy, and social interaction that provides significant benefits beyond the physical benefits of exercise. For those suffering from common mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, or those who don’t suffer from any mental illness, exercise can still provide tremendous mental health benefits.
Exercise reduces anxiety, depression, and negative mood by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.
It has proven to slow rates of age-related memory and cognitive decline in the long run while increasing self-esteem and overall wellbeing in the short-term. For those suffering from depressive or anxiety disorders, regular exercise can reduce symptoms and for those who aren’t mentally ill, exercise protects against the development of mental disorders.
Regular exercise mimics antidepressants by increasing serotonergic and noradrenergic levels in the brain.
Abnormalities in monoamine function in the brain have been implicated in the pathophysiology of anxiety spectrum disorders by reducing serotonin levels. Exercise increases serotonin synthesis, metabolism, and release, and some exercise styles such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) have been shown to release endogenous opioids (a type of endorphin) in the brain, leading to feelings of euphoria and reductions in pain.
Improvements in mood are also proposed to be caused by exercise-induced increases in blood circulation to the brain and positively influence the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA is an interaction between the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal glands and it plays an important role in our stress response. In addition to this, exercise creates communication between the HPA axis, the limbic system (controls motivation and mood), the amygdala (generates fear in response to stress), and the hippocampus (plays an important part in memory formation as well as mood and motivation).
Working in conjunction, this coordination causes the exerciser to feel better, think better, and feel less threatened (lower anxiety and stress). Acute stress leads to alterations in the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ATCH) and excess levels of glucocorticoids, leading to events such as mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, and loss of muscle tissue. Exercise helps to modulate their reactions and release.
Exercise forces the body’s central and sympathetic nervous systems to communicate with each other. Thus, it improves the body’s overall ability to respond to stress.
In addition to this, the act of increasing one’s heart rate through exercise can reverse stress-induced brain damage by stimulating the production of neurohormones that improve cognition and mood as well as improve clouded thinking as a result of stressful events. The increase in body temperature (by product of an elevated heart rate) has a calming effect on the mind, making it easier to sleep. The higher self-esteem and self-confidence make it easier to do everyday things both physically and mentally.
All in all, exercise can be beneficial for everyone. Improving one’s mental health only brings positive outcomes and exercise is arguably the best avenue when implemented safely. Oftentimes, the benefits of exercise are only talked about regarding one’s mental health. Those suffering from moderate to severe mental illness are usually left out of the conversation. While exercise may not cure mental illness, it can help fight off acute symptoms and chronic illness often associated with the disease itself and the medications used to treat them.