Many of the health benefits of engaging in regular exercise, such as a decreased risk of heart disease, are well-known. However, over the last ten years or so, there have been several studies into the benefits that physical activity has on a person’s mental health.
Physical exercise has a positive impact upon those who are suffering from mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety disorders, helping them to recover or improve the quality of their lives. Exercise acts as a stress relief technique, a distraction and as a means of improving cognitive function, which can result in a reduced risk of dementia in the elderly.
In addition, regular exercise can actually help to prevent people from falling prey to mental illnesses such as depression in the first place, something which is especially important when you consider that 1 in…
The benefits of exercise on the mentally ill are numerous. According to findings by the National Institute of Health, exercise is often neglected as an intervention method when dealing with mental health problems, yet aerobic exercises, including running, swimming, cycling and even walking can significantly reduce depression and anxiety in a person.
Improvements in mood are the result of chemical changes within the body. Exercise increases blood circulation to the brain and exercise leads to the release of endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain medication.
Many anti-depressant medications are intended to raise the serotonin levels in the brain. Exercise increases serotonin levels naturally.
It can also serve as a distraction from a person’s problems, making them less overwhelming and giving a person time to process thoughts more easily.
Furthermore, the self-esteem generated by regular exercise and improved levels of fitness can go some way to alleviating the symptoms of anxiety, depression and mental illnesses related to body image, such as body dysmorphia.
Arizona State University researchers found that to reduce anxiety, aerobic exercises are best and the effects of exercise are most noticeable in those with high levels of anxiety to begin with. Meawhile, to reduce depression, results are best achieved with vigorous exercise over a period of several weeks.
Increased levels of physical activity also play a crucial role in a person’s sleep patterns, leading to a more ‘restful’ sleep, something which is inextricably linked to positive mental health.
Participating in team sports has the additional benefit of improving social interaction and helping to overcome social anxiety issues.
Depression and anxiety disorders are complicated and often those suffering feel that they lose control of their lives, or at least lose control of certain aspects of them.
According to Dr. Alan Cohen, a GP interested in mental health, one key benefit of regular exercise is restoring a person’s sense that they are in control of their lives.
“Exercise gives them back control of their bodies,” Cohen said. “This is often the first step feeling in control of other events.”
The effectiveness of exercise as a means of reducing the symptoms of mental illness has been proven successful by research carried out by the UK mental health charity Mind.
In 2001 the charity carried out a survey which found that 83% of people with mental health problems turned to exercise as a treatment method.
Of those 83%, over half said that it had relieved anxiety and two thirds saw benefits in exercise reducing their levels of depression.
Additionally, sufferers of mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder (manic depression) and schizophrenia also reported benefits in the aftermath of increased exercise and 70% of people without mental health issues felt that their mental health would deteriorate if they stopped exercising on a regular basis.
Despite the benefits of regular exercise, many of those suffering from mental health problems find participating in regular exercise to be difficult. The biggest obstacles facing sufferers of mental health issues include a lack of confidence and a lack of motivation.
Those suffering from social anxiety disorders may find it beneficial to begin an exercise routine in their house before taking the bigger step of joining a gym or attending regular exercise classes. Additionally, even walking has demonstrable benefits on self-esteem and fitness and can be used as a gateway exercise, helping to gradually increase motivation.
It may also prove useful to take a friend or someone you can trust along to any exercise classes, in order to make the experience less daunting and to encourage repeated attendance.
How Much Exercise?
According to research, adults should aim to be active for at least 250 minutes (2 and a half hours) every week.
If you are currently unfit or have not exercised in a while, it is best to work up to this level gradually. Even a 15 minute walk will help towards increasing fitness levels and improving overall mood.