Exercise for Your Mental Health and Happiness

We know that exercise is good for our bodies. It’s good for cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of obesity, diabetes, stroke, and even some kinds of cancer. It helps us build muscle and lose weight. But did you know that exercise is also great for our mental health?

We’re not just talking about that feeling of satisfaction you get when you walk out of a tough H.E.A.T. class or the fun you have at DanceFit. Exercise is also beneficial for your brain and your mood.

Scientists looked at the self-reported mental health of over 1.2 million individuals. They found that people who exercised regularly (45 minutes, three to five times per week) had fewer poor mental health days than those that didn’t. People who had regular physical activity felt better and had less bad days.


Exercise to Reduce Feelings of Depression and Anxiety

Many people in our busy modern society suffer from anxiety and depression. In fact, anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses in America. These disorders affect over 40 million adults in the U.S., and nearly 16.1 million adults suffer from depression. Half of those adults with depression also report having an anxiety disorder.

People experiencing anxiety can feel restless, on-edge, and irritable. Anxiety is characterized by feelings of worry and stress that can feel overwhelming. Depression causes feelings of sadness and apathy. While anxiety and depression can be treated in several different ways, including therapy and medication, exercise can help. In studies, exercise training significantly reduced the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

It doesn’t have to be a long sweaty session either. Even a single walk or yoga class has been shown to give people a mood boost.

How it Works

Exercise can help our brain and our mood in many different ways. Physical activity triggers the chemical transmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Dopamine is involved in our feeling of motivation and achievement. It’s what makes us feel good when we get a reward. Norepinephrine prepares the body for action and movement. It boosts your attention, assists in learning and storing memories, and is involved in motivation. Serotonin contributes to our feels of happiness and well-being. Perhaps not surprisingly, people with depression also show low levels of these three chemicals.

Physical activity also promotes our feelings of social connection, and social relationships are essential for our mental health and living long, healthy lives. Whether you are meeting new friends at the juice bar, taking on a challenger in the racquetball court or spending time with a Personal Trainer, you are building connections. Many studies have shown that people who have a community of friends are happier, healthier, and live longer.

Aerobic exercise has also been proven to help with stress. It enhances your neuronal adaptation to the harmful effects of stress. This is because active movement increases blood circulation in your brain. It also impacts your limbic system and hippocampus, both of which play vital roles in motivation and mood. This means that you are better able to cope with stress when it occurs.

Take a Mental Break

Speaking of stress, exercise can also be a great mental break. It’s hard to think about the long lists of undone projects or that unpleasant meeting at work when you are pedaling hard in a Cycle class or powering through TEAM Training. For that hour, you can focus totally on the task at hand. In fact, increasing your heart rate can actually reduce and repair stress-induced brain damage.

For more moving meditations, check out a Tai Chi or a Yoga class. These mind-body classes can aid in relaxation and improving your mood. They have been proven to have positive benefits for people suffering from mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, A.D.H.A., and P.T.S.D.

Another mental benefit to regular physical activity? Improved sleep. Without a sound, consistent sleep pattern, we feel fatigued, our brain feels foggy, and we are more irritable. It can ultimately lead to depression and other serious diseases. Working out on a regular schedule helps you get the good, solid rest you need.

So, while many people hit the gym to slim down or shape up, there are also fantastic reasons to do it for your mental health. It’s not just our bodies that need regular movement, our brains require it too. Exercise makes you feel better, helps you manage stress, and live a healthier life.

Dawn Highhouse

Cover Mind & Body
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