24 May Exercise Your Way to Mental Health
How many times have you been in the doctor’s office and lied through your teeth as he/she asks you how often you exercise? And how many times have you wished your friend would stop talking about how great they are about getting to the gym and eating healthy. Yeah, yeah, we get it… you feel great; just don’t rub it in our faces! We know we should exercise more and we’ve all heard that regular exercise and physical activity are important for our physical health. But could it be an effective treatment for our mental health as well?
As more and more studies are done on the brain and brain health, researchers are discovering several positive effects of regular physical activity on overall mental health (this list is by no means exhaustive):
1. Exercise improves overall mood. Sustained physical activity allows more of the amino acid tryptophan to enter the brain, encouraging the production of serotonin (Amen, 1998). Serotonin is the neurochemical found to be low in individuals with depression. Exercise also boosts self-confidence and sense of accomplishment.
2. Physical activity reduces stress levels. Our bodies respond physically to increases in stress in what we commonly know as the fight/flight/freeze response. When we are stressed, the part of our nervous system that controls this response, the sympathetic nervous system, is in full force. By exercising we slow down that response and engage another part of our nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system. This allows us to feel more relaxed and manage our stress more effectively. Additionally, exercise helps us slow down or distracts us from our anxious and obsessive thoughts.
3. It increases cognitive functioning and improves memory.Exercise is thought to enhance cognitive abilities and encourage the growth of new brain cells (Amen, 2013). Additionally, studies show that regular physical activity increases the size of the hippocampus, our memory center, and improves our memory (Erikson, et. al., 2011).
4. Physical activity helps us sleep better. Exercise helps regulate the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle. It also raises the body’s core temperature during the workout. Several hours post-workout, when the core temp drops back to normal, it sends signals to the brain that it is time to sleep (Youngstedt, 2005). There’s nothing like the natural sleeping pill called exercise!
Simply knowing all of these wonderful benefits of exercise does not increase the motivation or likelihood that we are going to jump up this instant and go workout. We are great at coming up with reason why we can’t change our behaviors: “I don’t have any time!” “I just don’t have the energy to exercise,” “It’s too expensive to go take a class,” “I don’t want to go alone,” “I wouldn’t know where to start!” “I just have too much on my plate,” “What am I going to do with my kids?” And we believe these excuses without much hesitation. So this becomes the moment of choice. Will you remain sedentary or will you choose to challenge some of those thoughts?
If you’re ready to start incorporating exercise into your routine, here’s some helpful tips to keep you from giving in to your excuses:
1. Keep it simple. It can be overwhelming to think about finding time everyday to exercise, so try exercising twice a week for 30-45 minutes and then build upon that. Give yourself obtainable goals so that you don’t feel as if you are failing.
2. Pay attention to what you fill your time with and see if you can use some of that time for exercise. Do you spend your free time in front of the computer or on your phone? Do you watch a lot of TV? Try working out during commercial breaks or while scrolling through Facebook posts. (These are some great exercises to do in front of the TV/computer: https://www.fitneass.com/10-exercises-while-watching-tv/).
3. Choose a time to workout when you have the most energy.Pay attention to when that is. If you are depressed, exercise is the last thing you are going to want to do because your brain is revolting against you. But taking a 30-45 minute brisk walk will give your brain the increase in neurochemicals it needs to help your mood start to improve.
4. Working out doesn’t have to break the bank. The Internet has a plethora of free programs and workout guides. Not all are created equal, but you can find some wonderful material that caters to all levels of strength, mobility, and activity. Don’t be afraid to check into workout DVDs or find an inexpensive gym (think Chuze Fitness, Crunch Fitness, or LA Fitness). And don’t worry, all those body builders at the gym are just looking at themselves; they can’t be bothered with what you’re doing.
5. Find something you like to do. Before you start, take some time to think about the type of exercise you would like to do. If you don’t want to do it, you won’t. Pay attention to your body and be gentle to it as you start out. Don’t try to bench press 185 pounds right off the bat. Your initial goal is sustained movement for 30-45 minutes, four days a week, not lifting like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Find what you love because then you are more likely to (a) continue doing it, causing it to become routine and (b) feel good while doing it (and after too!).
- If you like weight training, you can try this workout program (requires gym): http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/jamie-eason-livefit-trainer.html.
- If you like yoga, but are worried about the cost, check out these YouTube videos: https://www.youtube.com/user/yogawithadriene.
- If you’re a runner, this might be a good program to get you started: http://www.coolrunning.com/engine/2/2_3/181.shtml.
- If hiking is your thing and you live in San Diego, try some of these gems: http://www.discoversd.com/news/2014/sep/08/10-best-san-diego-hikes/#&panel1-1.
For a good, accessible read on the brain and how to optimize your brain’s health, check out Dr. Daniel Amen’s book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.
Sue Shrinkle, MS LMFT, is a Marriage and Family Therapist. She is currently in private practice at Coastal Counseling and also works as a behavioral consultant. If you would like to make an appointment with Sue, please call 1-888-470-4415.
This article and the information herein are for educational and informational purposes only. It is not meant as a substitute for professional psychological or therapeutic services. The self-help information provided by this blog are solely the opinion of the bloggers and should not be considered as a form of therapy, advice, direction, diagnosis, or treatment of any kind. Instead, the information is designed to be used in conjunction with ongoing treatment provided by a mental health professional. Use the information in this blog at your own risk. All of the information is provided “as-is,” with no warranties of any kind, express or implied.