Guest Post: Using Exercise to Improve Your Mental Health

Hi, friends! Today on My Brain’s Not Broken we have a guest post from Pamela Zuber, a writer/editor from Sunshine Behavioral Health, who writes about how we can use exercise to improve our mental health and wellness.

Are you anxious or depressed because of racial injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic, financial worries, or other problems? If all the jokes and memes are to be believed, we should cope with our stress by

  • Putting on sweatpants.
  • Pouring some wine.
  • Vegging on the couch to watch programs and movies.

While doing these things occasionally may help, doing them frequently may not be as productive. Some things may even be harmful, such as using alcohol as a regular coping mechanism.

There are other things we can do to take care of ourselves and to improve our mental health. Exercise is one.

Does exercise really help our mental health?

“[E]ven modest levels of exercise are associated with improvements in depression,” reported clinical psychologist and Duke University professor James A. Blumenthal and others. They added that, “[w]hile the optimal ‘dose’ of exercise is unknown, clearly any exercise is better than no exercise.”

Blumenthal and his fellow researchers evaluated numerous studies that discuss how exercise impacts depression:

  • Some studies claimed that exercise and medication both produced similar results to treat depression.
  • Other studies said that physical activity and cognitive behavioral therapy – talk therapy – treated depression in similar ways.

Moving around a little, then, can boost our moods. But why?

Why does exercise work?

Exercise can improve mental health. Geetha Shivakumar is a psychiatrist and professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Elizabeth H. Anderson holds a master’s in rehabilitation counseling degree, so they know how the brain works. They said that regular fitness can soothe anxiety because exercise:

  • Regulates reactions of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the interactions among the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal gland.
  • Stimulates processes related to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps relay signals within the brain.
  • Increases norepinephrine levels and boosts its uptake. Norepinephrine is another neurotransmitter and it boosts heart rate, increases blood flow, and releases glucose (blood sugar).
  • Boosts brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) proteins, which produce and nourish neurons (nerve cells) and ultimately help memory and learning.
  • Promotes the growth of neurons in the brain.
  • Spurs the body’s production of opioids, which soothe pain and regulate our emotional responses and moods.

Shivakumar and Anderson added that from a psychological standpoint, fitness can alleviate anxiety because exercise can:

  • Reduce an individual’s sensitivity to anxiety.
  • Improve people’s self-efficacy, which is the belief that they can succeed.
  • Provide distraction from worries.

Becoming active can boost substances and processes that enhance our emotional well-being while reducing factors that can harm it. How can we become more active?

How can we incorporate exercise into our lives?

With a little creativity, it’s easy to incorporate exercise into our lives. Some people prefer to exercise in gyms or with personal trainers.

Yet gyms and trainers cost money that people may not have or money that they don’t want to spend. Gyms and other recreation facilities may also be closed or limiting their capacities. People might not be visiting them – or meeting with trainers — because they’re afraid of contracting the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Or people might prefer to exercise alone.

Given these reasons, people might want to consider exercising at home or outside. In addition, if government authorities require or encourage us to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or for other health-related reasons, going outdoors for fitness might be one of the few ways we can leave our homes.

Of course, even while exercising, we may still have to follow public health suggestions. Depending on requirements and whether we’re fully vaccinated, we may have to exercise six feet away from other people and/or wear a mask if we’re in the vicinity of others. You might want to check with your local authorities and specific facilities to learn which precautions they require.

Do you live in an area with outdoor recreational areas and paths for walking and biking? Those areas can be great for getting you outside and getting you moving.

But if you don’t have those areas, you can still find fitness opportunities. Do you live near a school? If so, it may have running tracks, basketball hoops, playing fields, and other options.

Even if their facilities are closed, schools and other buildings often have large parking lots that provide ample space for walking, running, biking, roller-skating, and other activities.

Exercising in parking lots is actually a good way to incorporate some fitness in your life. It lets you measure your activity and build on it.

If you’re new to exercising, for example, you could walk the perimeter of a large parking lot two or three times for three days a week. The next week, you could run one of those laps instead of walking. Or you might walk five laps instead of three. The following week, you can run more laps or add more laps to your walk.

It doesn’t matter how you exercise, it just matters that you do. It’s also important to go easy on yourself. If you haven’t exercised or have skipped some days, you can always begin (or begin again).

You can start by walking a little, then walking a little more, and continuing to walk. This means that you’ll be taking literal and figurative steps to improve your mental health and physical fitness.

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and editor for Sunshine Behavioral Health treatment facilities who is interested in mental and physical health, addiction, gender, human rights, and several other topics.

Sources – Healthy Ways to Cope with Anxiety – Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression? – Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety – Mental Health Month: COVID-19 and Self-Isolation Blues – Equinox Says CDC’s New Mask Guidance Sparked Surge in Membership, Customers Returning to Gym


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