Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health

By Ginny Estupinian Ph.D.

We have all heard of the importance of exercise for our physical well being. The benefits include: weight control, combating heart disease, and improved agility, just to mention a few.walking is great exercise

Today, there is ever growing evidence supporting the tremendous benefits exercise has on our overall mental health.

What is now beginning to surface in the research is how exercise is helping improve many mental health issues that before were only treated using medications.

In this article we will look at some of the benefits exercise has produced on some of these mental health issues.

Depression and Anxiety
According to the CDC about 9% of Americans report they are depressed at least occasionally, while 3.4% of the American population reports suffering from major depression.  Similarly, other reports show anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 18% of adults.

Now, depression and anxiety might seem like opposites, but they often go together.  The fact is that more than half of the people diagnosed with depression will also be suffering from some sort of anxiety.

Why exercise helps in general
For some time now we have understood that active people are less depressed than inactive people.  What is not clearly understood is how specifically moving our muscles helps our mental health.
One theory proposes that exercise increases the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.  This happens to be the same impact many antidepressant medications target.   So, when we exercise we naturally increase the amount of serotonin in our brains, giving us a natural sense of balance and control.

Others have theorized that exercise helps by normalizing our sleep patterns, and this in turn provides protective benefits to the brain.   All things taken into account, it appears there are multiple factors playing a role rather than a single factor.

How exercise helps improve mood
Within five minutes after moderate exercise has begun, the average person begins to experience a mood enhancement effect.   This benefit is especially important for people who are suffering from depression.   However, as we will see, exercising needs to be maintained consistently in order to get the maximum benefit from it.

Recent research conducted by James Blumenthal, Ph.D., showed how people who were active and then stopped exercising tended to be more depressed than those who maintain an exercise program.
In one study, Dr. Blumenthal took sedentary adults with major depressive disorder and assigned them to one of four groups:  supervised exercise, home-based exercise, anti-depressant therapy or a placebo pill.

After four months he discovered that participants who had major depressive disorder and exercised had experienced the same level of benefit as those who only used antidepressants.   In other words, exercise proved to be as beneficial as the medication in treating the depression.

How exercise may prevent anxiety
New studies are looking into how exercise may help treat and even prevent anxiety in certain individuals.  One researcher who is leading this investigation is Jasper Smith, Ph.D.  the co-director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Medical science has for some time understood how our bodies respond when we are threatened or under stress.   Typically, under these conditions, individuals can show signs of sweating, dizziness, and a racing heartbeat.   These conditions are frequently experienced by individuals with a heightened sensitivity to anxiety.  Dr. Smith has been able to show how regular workouts may help people prone to anxiety become less likely to panic when they experience a stressful situation.

One reason is that when we exercise our bodies respond similarly to when we are stressed; heavy perspiration and an increased heart rate.  In many ways regular exercise desensitizes the body’s response and thereby could help to ward off panic attacks. Dr. Smith and his colleagues are continuing to look into this promising avenue of research.

When is exercise most helpful
We have all had the experience of not wanting to exercise when we are tired or just feeling down.  However, this is one of the most important times to exercise.  As we have seen here, the effects on mood are quickly realized after moderate exercising.  So, avoiding exercising because we are feeling less than optimum may be what prevents us from obtaining the mood improvement we need.

How to begin an exercise program
First, make sure to check with your primary care physician to determine if you can begin an exercise program.  Next, begin gradually and build up your exercise program.  To get the benefits we described here all you have to do is walk at a fast pace for 30 minutes.  If that is too long then start with 10 minutes and build up slowly.  The pace should be equal to the way that you walk if you were running late for an appointment.  You should still be able to talk at that speed.

Avoid starting out too hard in a new exercise program.  This may be a primary reason why many people avoid exercising and it can also erode the benefits.   When people exercise beyond their respiratory threshold (the point they can exercise and talk) they postpone the immediate mood boost of exercise by 30 minutes.  For those who are just starting out on a new exercise program this may be what discourages them from continuing.

As we have seen here, the mental health benefits of exercising require a moderate rate coupled with consistency.  So there is no need to feel exhausted in order to accomplish your goal.  Remember that aside from the mental health benefits, you will also enjoy the physical benefits that come alone with a regular exercise program.

Important Note:  The research findings discussed here are truly fascinating and offer a lot of promise.  However, individuals on a prescribed medication should not go off their medication(s) without the assistance from their primary health care provider.  Make sure to consult with your primary health care provider before making any changes.

Neuropsychological assessment group provides neuropsychological testing for mood disorders.  Call today for a confidential consultation.