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Relationship between Exercise and Mental Health


While scrolling on social media or watching youtube videos have you noticed any ads about some new 21-day fitness challenge or a 'must try' celebrity workout regime which will change your life?

For a long time, we have been goaded to exercise, however, the reason to do so is always associated with looking like a popular public figure, achieving the desired weight goal, or fitting a certain trend. We often view exercise as just to achieve the desired weight and when we don’t fall through, our motivation to exercise also dwindles. One of the many promoted benefits of exercise is burning calories however we fail to see the other benefits we are reaping by exercising. Our perception of an outcome also impacts whether or not we are going to engage in any action.


Image Description: In the photo there is a pair of black shoes and black dumbells placed on the the wooden floor. Photo by Kelly Sikkema https://unsplash.com/photos/bE6k8SQT2FQ


Apart from the physical health benefits, there are a lot of other advantages of exercise that have been studied and documented. Exercise-induced blood circulation to the brain has been shown to improve mood. This has an influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis which impacts our perception to stress. One of the hypotheses is that because the HPA axis is connected to several regions of our brain it impacts our mood, motivation, and perception of stress.

Exercise helps in

  • releasing endorphins which help us in concentrating and making our memory sharp.

  • the promotion of new brain cells and aids in preventing age-related decline.

  • impacting our self-worth, it can make us feel strong and powerful.

  • regulating sleep.

  • increasing our blood circulation and pumping up our heart rate and this leads to an overall increase in our energy levels.

  • acting as a healthy coping mechanism that we can rely on when are feeling stressed or anxious and reduces our chances to use alternate harmful coping methods.


There are various studies that are being conducted to understand the association between exercise and mental well-being. A study done by Chekroud et. al (2018) showed a meaningful association between exercise and mental health. The study showed that individuals who exercised had 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health days in a month compared to individuals who didn’t exercise. In these findings, they noticed that playing team-based sports showed the lowest mental health burden in individuals as it showed that social activity promotes resilience to stress and reduced depression. Team-based sports have an advantage over other exercises as they benefit from minimizing social withdrawal and isolation (Chekroud et. al, 2018). So it is important to understand here that exercising a few times a week can lead to a mood boost and if we partake in group exercise or classes where others are also exercising with us, we will feel a sense of belonging. It is like being part of a small community. This is helpful for individuals who feel isolated in their lives or want to connect to more people. This routine can contribute as a bonding factor as well.


Exercise also helps in the expression of anger. Every individual expresses or suppresses anger in their own ways. A study conducted by Bucjman et, al, showed an association between exercise and suppression of anger. It was seen that exercise can reduce the chances of coronary heart disease as it alters the expression of anger. This could be because individuals who exercise reduce their suppression of anger or they might increase their exercise frequency in order to reduce anger. (Hassmen et. al, 2000). This shows how exercise can also help us regulate our mood. Different individuals use different coping mechanisms to deal with distress. Exercise is often known as a great stress buster. It helps you express your pent-up emotions and release all the built-up energy. Different exercises can be used for different people. For some engaging in running, kickboxing, martial arts, etc will help them release their emotions for others yoga, and going for a walk can be helpful to regulate their emotions.


Many a time individuals with mental health conditions find it challenging to exercise as often their energy is spent functioning in doing daily tasks. However, a lot of studies have been conducted between exercise and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression which show a positive correlation. A study was done on Finnish adults showed the effects of physical exercise on various psychological factors. It compared individuals on the basis of how much they exercised. It showed that participants who exercise more experienced less depression, less distrust, less anger, and less perceived stress in comparison to individuals who exercised less frequently. (Hassmen et. al, 2000). A research study found that via exercise individuals can learn to associate symptoms of danger ( sweating, shallow breathing, and increased heart rate) with a sense of safety. It showed that exercise can act as an exposure treatment for anxiety as the physical reaction of anxiety and exercise are the same. ( Weir, 2011).


A meta-analysis was conducted on 11 well-controlled studies which showed that exercise could be a powerful intervention for clinical depression. Exercise alone is not something that can be used instead of therapy. However, exercise could be recommended alongside psychotherapy as another strategy to treat depression. Exercise can be used to integrate into one’s general model of care for the broader promotion of well-being (Stathopoulou et al).


But why is it so hard to exercise?


One of the reasons could be that when an individual starts to exercise they directly plunge into exercise and don’t do it gradually. Research shows that if individual exercises and exerts themselves above their respiratory threshold, (which is a point beyond which it gets difficult to talk) then this will lead to a delay in them receiving the exercise's mood boost for above 30 minutes. Sometimes individuals who are just starting our might just stop exercising altogether. It was also seen that a lot of motivation to exercise relies heavily on the physical effects. This means focusing on the weight loss and dropping inches. It takes a long period of time and even months for individuals to reap the benefit of physical exercise and often this disappointment of not achieving the desired result can stop the person from exercising. (Weird, 2011). This is understandable as we would like to invest our time in doing something that is giving us some return. It can be helpful to view the overall benefits of exercise and not just restrict it to the results we can see physically. Therefore it would be beneficial to focus on the instant mood gratification that the exercise provides us. This is something that is tangible as well and will keep you motivated to make physical activity a part of your lifestyle.

It is also important to note that any exercise is an activity. So engaging in any physical exercise is going to sound challenging compared to watching a movie or scrolling on social media as we are actively doing something. This engagement also leads to a lot of physical sensations in our body like sweating, muscles tensing up, increased heart rate etc. So feeling tired after and during an exercise is normal. However, it is important to keep in mind that this also leads to endurance building and stamina. When we begin exercising our bodies and minds are not conditioned to it. Think of a time when you tried to learn something? For example, learning to drive a car. Do you remember how you felt then? And how do you feel now? Similarly starting exercising is also like building a habit. It takes to form a habit and add it to your lifestyle. Every individual is different and it is completely alright for you to take your time to figure out why are you engaging in exercise and what purpose is it serving you. After you have figured that out it can help you to motivate yourself to exercise apart from all the benefits that have been mentioned above.


How to start and stay consistent at exercising:


Many times we might not feel motivated to exercise. Sometimes our thoughts and beliefs about exercise can hinder us from exercising. Exercising doesn’t have to mean spending hours together at the gym or having the right kind of body to start exercising. You can make your own definition of exercise. It can simply mean keeping your body in motion for some amount of time every day. Moving your body for 30 minutes, 5 times a week will also suffice.


  • Start out small. If you are trying to build a habit of exercising regularly it would be beneficial to start at your natural pace and then build it up as you go along.


  • You can incorporate movement into your daily lives by taking the flight of stairs instead of a lift. You can park your car away from your workplace and increase your step count. Or you can just move around the house, dance to your favourtie songs, clean your house, etc.


  • Focus on exercising when your energy level is the highest. For some people, they feel energetic during the mornings, for some in the afternoon, and for some in the evenings. It can beneficial to notice and be mindful of this and schedule your exercise time accordingly.


  • Make exercise a fun part of your day. You can choose any sports or join a club where you are doing something that you like, eg zumba, tennis, yoga etc.


  • To remain consistent pick the same time to work out every day. Find a time during the day where you can block off 30-60 minutes to exercise.


  • Have an accountability partner. Work out or exercise with someone who has the same goal as you.


  • Reward yourself after completing an exercise. Rewarding yourself acts as an incentive to exercise and it can motivate you to achieve your physical activity goals for the day.


References:


Chekroud, S. R., Gueorguieva, R., Zheutlin, A. B., Paulus, M., Krumholz, H. M., Krystal, J. H., & Chekroud, A. M. (2018). Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1· 2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. The Lancet Psychiatry, 5(9), 739-746.


Hassmen, P., Koivula, N., & Uutela, A. (2000). Physical exercise and psychological well-being: a population study in Finland. Preventive medicine, 30(1), 17-25.


Weir, K. (2011, December). The exercise effect. Monitor on Psychology, 42(11). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/exercise


https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-health-benefits-of-exercise.htm


Stathopoulou, G., Powers, M. B., Berry, A. C., Smits, J. A., & Otto, M. W. (2006). Exercise interventions for mental health: a quantitative and qualitative review. Clinical psychology: Science and practice, 13(2), 179.


Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 8(2), 106. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a

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