Most of us are aware of the benefits of regular exercise for improving fitness and fighting disease – but did you know that staying physically active is also considered vital for maintaining mental health and reducing stress and anxiety?
Studies show that getting enough exercise is extremely effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy or ability to concentrate. When stress affects the brain, with its many nerve connections, the rest of the body feels the impact too. Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins – chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers – and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn helps to reduce stress.
Researchers have found that regular aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects. You can literally put stress on the run, with a good run…or walk, spin class, swim, hike or other form of aerobic exercise.
Exercise vs. Anxiety
Stress and anxiety are a normal part of life, but anxiety disorders, which affect as many as 40 million adults, are the most common psychiatric illnesses in the U.S. The benefits of exercise may well extend beyond stress relief to improving anxiety and related disorders. Psychologists studying how exercise relieves anxiety and depression suggest that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout. Some studies show that exercise can work quickly to elevate depressed mood in many people. Although the effects may be temporary, they demonstrate that a brisk walk or other simple activity can deliver several hours of relief, similar to taking an aspirin for a headache.
Science has also provided evidence that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people. Exercise may improve mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress. In one study, researchers found that those who got regular vigorous exercise were 25 percent less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over the next five years.
Exercise as Part of Therapy
According to some studies, regular exercise works as well as medication for some people to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and the effects can be long lasting. One vigorous exercise session can help alleviate symptoms for hours, and a regular schedule may significantly reduce them over time.
Although exercise has a positive effect for most people, some recent studies show that for some people, exercise may not have a positive effect on anxiety or depression or may not make a strong impact on long-term mental health. Like all forms of therapy, the effect can vary: some people may respond positively, others may find it doesn’t improve their mood much, and some may experience only a modest short-term benefit. Nonetheless, researchers say that the beneficial effects of exercise on physical health are not in dispute. Whether or not regular exercise has a direct effect on your level of anxiety, the overall effect of staying physically fit may still improve your sense of wellbeing and boost your self-image.
Rx for Mental and Physical Health
The most recent federal guidelines for adults recommend at least 2½ hours (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking, each week, 1¼ hours (75 minutes) of a vigorous-intensity activity, such as jogging or swimming laps, or a combination of the two.
If you have an exercise program already, keep up the good work. If not, here are tips to get you started.
• Run, walk, bike, or dance three to five times a week for 30 minutes.
• Set small daily goals and aim for daily consistency rather than perfect workouts. It’s better to walk every day for 15-20 minutes than to wait until the weekend for a three-hour fitness marathon. Lots of scientific data suggests that frequency is most important.
• Find forms of exercise that are fun or enjoyable. Extroverted people often like classes and group activities. If you are more introverted, you may prefer solo pursuits.
• Distract yourself with an iPod or other portable media player to download audiobooks, podcasts, or music.
• Recruit an “exercise buddy.” You may find it easier to stick to your exercise routine when you have to stay committed to a family member, friend, or partner.
• Be patient when you start a new exercise program. If you haven’t been physically active for a while, it may take a few weeks to feel coordinated and sufficiently in shape so that exercise gets easier and more effective.
Take it Outside
If you want to enhance the benefit of your fitness regimen, outdoor exercise provides a mental health boost beyond that of an indoor workout. Moving outdoors has been shown to reduce anger and depression and improve mood. Furthermore, exposure to sunlight enhances vitamin D production, which may be partially responsible for this mood-enhancing effect. You don’t have to run a marathon or crush an outdoor boot camp to reap the benefits. Even low-intensity activities, like walking or gardening, can make a difference. For a quick afternoon pick-me-up, head outside for a 15-minute walk break, and return to work feeling energized.
Source: Anxiety and Depression Association of America