The Mental Health Exercise Connection

May is a month of observance for Mental Health Awareness, so I’d like to talk about all of the ways that exercise, including a resistance strength training regimen with a qualified personal trainer, can benefit your mood and mental health. Please note: I am not a mental health practitioner, and exercise alone does not replace the care of a licensed psychiatrist or therapist and/or appropriate prescription medications. If you need someone to talk to, you can call the Crisis Hotline here by calling or texting 919-231-4525 or 1-877-235-4525.

You may not realize that the benefits of a regular exercise regimen are not just physical, but mental as well. We tend to think of our bodies and our minds as two distinct units that exist apart from one another, but what goes on in our brains is very closely tied to what is happening with our bodies. According to an article from the American Psychological Association, “There’s good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people. And people who were active and stopped tend to be more depressed than those who maintain or initiate an exercise program,” says James Blumenthal, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Duke University.

Blumenthal published a study in Psychosomatic Medicine wherein he and his colleagues prescribed sedentary adults with major depressive disorder to either supervised exercise, home-based exercise, antidepressant therapy or a placebo pill. After four months of treatment, Blumenthal found that patients in the exercise and antidepressant groups had higher rates of remission than did the patients on the placebo. After following up with his patients a year later, he found that those who had continued exercising reported lower levels of depression than those who had stopped.

Exercise isn’t effective for managing just depression, either. Researchers have found that patients struggling with anxiety disorders and heightened sensitivities to stress responses also benefited from regular exercise. According to the same APA article, “Researchers have also explored exercise as a tool for treating — and perhaps preventing — anxiety. When we’re spooked or threatened, our nervous systems jump into action, setting off a cascade of reactions such as sweating, dizziness, and a racing heart. People with heightened sensitivity to anxiety respond to those sensations with fear. They’re also more likely to develop panic disorder down the road, says Jasper Smits, PhD, Co-Director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and co-author, with Otto, of the 2011 book “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-being.”

Smits and Otto reasoned that regular workouts might help people prone to anxiety become less likely to panic when they experience those fight-or-flight sensations. After all, the body produces many of the same physical reactions — heavy perspiration, increased heart rate — in response to exercise. They tested their theory among 60 volunteers with heightened sensitivity to anxiety. Subjects who participated in a two-week exercise program showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity compared with a control group (Depression and Anxiety, 2008). “Exercise in many ways is like exposure treatment,” says Smits. “People learn to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger.”

The reason that exercise can be so beneficial for mental health outcomes is not completely understood, but we have a few ideas about why it works. You’ve probably been told before that “exercise releases endorphins”, which is a mood-boosting and regulating chemical in your brain. An article in The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry states that, “Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression. These improvements in mood are proposed to be caused by exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain and by an influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and, thus, on the physiologic reactivity to stress. This physiologic influence is probably mediated by the communication of the HPA axis with several regions of the brain, including the limbic system, which controls motivation and mood; the amygdala, which generates fear in response to stress; and the hippocampus, which plays an important part in memory formation as well as in mood and motivation.

Other hypotheses that have been proposed to explain the beneficial effects of physical activity on mental health include distraction, self-efficacy, and social interaction.”

So, whether it floods your brain with happy chemicals or simply works as a distraction and self-esteem boosting fix to daily stressors, exercise can be an important step in the self-care and management of your mental health.

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