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The Very Real Benefits of Exercise On Your Mental Health

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately one-third of Americans show clinical signs of depression and anxiety. While the state of Americans’ mental health has been on the decline in recent decades, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the issue. Stress over job loss or income reduction, grief due to loss, fear of falling ill, trauma from widespread disease, lack of socialization and other factors have all contributed to the increase in rates of depression and anxiety.

If you, like millions of others in the world, find yourself struggling to maintain a positive mindset and control of your emotions, there are several tricks you can try to improve your state of mind. Massachusetts General Hospital recommends mindfulness and telemedicine. Medline Plus suggests practicing gratitude and meditation. Mental Health Foundation advises you to talk about your feelings, eat well and care for others. While each of these are great and easy ways to look after your mental health, there’s one method you can start doing today that can make a world of difference: Exercise.

Exercise Stimulates the Production of Endorphins and Enkephalins

It is no secret that exercise stimulates the production of endorphins and enkephalins, the body’s natural feel-good hormones. Though these hormones don’t necessarily give you a “rainbows and sunshine” type outlook, they can help to put your problems into perspective. After a good sweat session, your work troubles may no longer seem so unmanageable, and you may find that your financial situation isn’t as bleak as you initially thought. In short, these helpful hormones can make your problems — no matter how big or small — feel more manageable.

In addition to transforming mountains back into mole holes, the simple act of exercise can take your mind off of stressful matters and self-deprecating thought. Furthermore, depending on the activity, exercise can boost your energy levels, calm you down and/or force you to interact with others, all of which are known to improve mood.

Exercise Has the Potential To Treat and Prevent Chronic Mental Conditions

For the longest time, the Western World has treated the mind and body separate, but an increasing amount of evidence reveals just how wrong this way of thinking is. The mind and body feed off each other. When you enjoy good physical health, there is a very strong likelihood that you will also enjoy good mental health, and vice versa. If you’re skeptical about this assertion, consider the facts.

According to the findings from several studies, exercise is just as effective a treatment for chronic mental health conditions, such as dementia, depression and anxiety, as pharmacological interventions. In terms of prevention, individuals who exercised regularly had a reduced likelihood of developing depression and other mental illnesses in older age. Exercise has even been proven to reduce the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Exercise Directly Affects the Brain

But how, you may wonder, can exercise treat and prevent mental illness? The answer is simple: Exercise has a direct impact on the brain.

Research shows that regular exercise actually increases the volume of certain regions of the brain. It does this in one of two ways: 1) By boosting blood supply to the brain, which thereby improves the delivery of nutrients and oxygen, and 2) By increasing the neurohormones that support the growth, signaling and connections of neurons.

What’s more is that exercise has been proven to increase the production of hippocampal neurons in animals. These neurons are responsible for emotion regulation, memory and learning. This finding is particularly interesting, and many studies suggest that the degradation of these neurons is one of the primary causes of many mental illnesses, including depression.

What This Means for You

You don’t have to become an Olympic athlete to benefit from the mental effects of exercise. Rather, you need only develop a routine that consists of three to four exercise sessions per week that are approximately 45 to 60 minutes long. If you live a relatively sedentary lifestyle, start off slow with two to three 20 minutes sessions per week. As you build strength and stamina, increase the time of each session and the number of days you work out.

To see the greatest anti-depressant effects, keep up your routine for between 10 to 12 weeks. However, for lifelong benefits, make exercise a part of your life. There is no harm in doing so, and plenty of good.