If you want to make just one change to your life this year which will improve your mental wellbeing, getting active is a pretty good candidate. Regular physical activity brings a wide range of psychological benefits, and improved self-esteem is just one of them. Chemicals called endorphins are released by your body when you exercise. Your perception of pain and your overall mood can be greatly altered by the ways in which these endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain.
What Is Exercise?
At its most basic, exercise is physical activity that involves moving your body and exerting yourself more than you would when you are resting. Whether it is combined with other treatments or used on its own, many people find that physical activity helps them maintain positive mental health. And there can be more to exercise than training at a gym or running a marathon!
The positive effects of a little exercise on the body are often attributed to the production of endorphins, which have been compared to morphine in terms of the positive feeling they trigger in the body. Many eager athletes describe a “euphoric” feeling after a run or workout, which will often be accompanied by an energised and optimistic mood.
Diminishing the perception of pain, endorphins are natural analgesics. They can also have a sedative effect, and are released in response to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters from your brain, spinal cord and many other parts of your body. Pain medicines and endorphins are so similar that they bind to the same neuron receptors. Addiction and dependence are not risks with endorphins as they are with morphine, however.
If you want to pursue this feeling by getting a bit more active, there are lots of activities for you to choose from. If you are feeling unwell, however, it can be difficult to be physically active, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t feel up to it straight away.
“Human bodies are designed for regular physical activity. The sedentary nature of much of modern life probably plays a significant role in the epidemic incidence of depression today. Many studies show that depressed patients who stick to a regimen of aerobic exercise improve as much as those treated with medication.” – Andrew Weil, MD Guru of Alternative Medicine.
There is evidence that regular exercise can…
- ward off anxiety and feelings of depression
- help you feel more relaxed
- improve sleep
- increase your energy levels
Physical activity also causes our bodies to release cortisol, which helps us manage stress. It can also give you a coping strategy for difficult times, as it gives your brain something new to focus on. When times are better, exercise can improve self esteem by allowing you to set and meet goals as you improve. It can also help you to reduce your likelihood of experiencing further periods of depression. Your mood may be further improved if you take up a team sport or group activity, as you will develop stronger friendships and a greater sense of community.
In addition to improving your mental health, exercise also brings a variety of benefits for your physical health:
- it increases energy levels
- it reduces your risk of heart diseases
- it helps your body to manage insulin levels, which in turn keep your blood sugar levels healthy
- it makes you look fit and healthy
- it improves muscle tone and strength
- it helps you control your weight
“The mental health of BAME communities is important because people from these communities often face individual and societal challenges that can affect access to healthcare and overall mental and physical health.” – Mental Health Foundation.
Exercise for Clinical Depression
Mild to moderate depression may be effectively treated through physical exercise, according to some research, though this approach is often underused. Both your mood and your vitamin D levels may be additionally boosted if you exercise outside (with the appropriate sun protection). It is important to note, however, that like any other mental health treatment, exercise is not a one-size-fits-all option. The degree to which it will help with your mental health will vary from person to person, and some people will still benefit from pharmaceutical and talking therapies alongside their exercise regimen.
Mental health is not something that everyone can fix with a little exercise. For some, exercise won’t improve mental wellbeing at all, while for others, it will be helpful sometimes but not all the time. If you have a habit of overtraining or a history of disordered eating, physical activity may even start to have a negative impact on your mental health.
Which Activities Are Best?
Depression appears to be improved by any form of exercise at all. Moderate exercises that are particularly popular for mental health include…
- hiking in the woods
- strength training
- tai chi
- playing tennis
- jogging at a moderate pace
- golf (walking instead of using the cart)
“… no-one should feel that they “should” be able to run the blues away. For people with longer-term and harder to treat conditions such as bipolar, schizophrenia or personality disorders, exercise may be one tool that people use to pursue recovery or maintain wellness in periods of remission, but that’s going to be it – one tool from a kit of many, with more traditional tools such as drugs or therapy likely to be at the forefront.” – Charlotte, Writer at Mind.org.uk
Joining a group exercise class may be beneficial as this will introduce social support, which is important for those with depression. It can also introduce a sense of accountability, which may be a vital motivating force for those whose overall motivation is impacted by their mental health. A similar effect can be achieved by exercising with your partner or a close friend, and this will make it easier for those who care about you to actively support your recovery.
If you’re interested in learning more about exercise and other treatments for mental illness, you can read all about it in The Essential Guide to Depression from Need2Know Books.