Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
Everyone knows that regular exercise is good for the body. But exercise is also one of the most effective ways to improve your mental health and lengthen your life and earning potential capability. Regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety, ADHD, and more. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts overall mood. And you don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits. Research indicates that modest amounts of exercise can make a difference. No matter your age or fitness level, you can learn to use exercise as a powerful tool to feel better. Evidence is clear for the benefits of exercise, yet psychologists don’t often use exercise as part of their treatment arsenal. Here’s more research on why they should.
When Jennifer Carter, PhD of the American Psychological Association, counsels patients, she often suggests they walk as they talk. "I work on a beautiful wooded campus," says the counseling and sport psychologist at the Center for Balanced Living in Ohio. Strolling through a therapy session often helps patients relax and open up, she finds. But that's not the only benefit. As immediate past president of APA's Div. 47 (Exercise and Sport Psychology), she's well aware of the mental health benefits of moving your muscles. "I often recommend exercise for my psychotherapy clients, particularly for those who are anxious or depressed," she says. Unfortunately, graduate training programs rarely teach students how to help patients modify their exercise behavior, Carter says, and many psychologists aren't taking the reins on their own. "I think clinical and counseling psychologists could do a better job of incorporating exercise into treatment," she says.
"Exercise is something that psychologists have been very slow to attend to," agrees Michael Otto, PhD, a professor of psychology at Boston University. "People know that exercise helps physical outcomes. There is much less awareness of mental health outcomes — and much, much less ability to translate this awareness into exercise action."
Researchers are still working out the details of that action: how much exercise is needed, what mechanisms are behind the boost exercise brings, and why — despite all the benefits of physical activity — it's so hard to go for that morning jog. But as evidence piles up, the exercise-mental health connection is becoming impossible to ignore.
Natural Mood enhancement
If you've ever gone for a run after a stressful day, chances are you felt better afterward. "The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong," Otto says. "Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect."
But the effects of physical activity extend beyond the short-term. Research shows that exercise can also help alleviate long-term depression.
Some of the evidence for that comes from broad, population-based correlation studies. "There's good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people. And people who were active and stopped tend to be more depressed than those who maintain or initiate an exercise program," says James Blumenthal, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Duke University.
Of all the questions that remain to be answered, perhaps the most perplexing is this: If exercise makes us feel so good, why is it so hard to do it? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2008 (the most recent year for which data are available), some 25 percent of the U.S. population reported zero leisure-time physical activity, and the stats for in Canada are about 50% on average over most age groups according to Stats Canada.
Starting out too hard in a new exercise program may be one of the reasons people disdain physical activity. When people exercise above their respiratory threshold — that is, above the point when it gets hard to talk — they postpone exercise's immediate mood boost by about 30 minutes, Otto says. For novices, that delay could turn them off of the treadmill for good. Given that, he recommends that workout neophytes start slowly, with a moderate exercise plan.
Health benefits from regular exercise that should be emphasized and reinforced by every mental health professional to their patients include the following:
Mental health & physical health service providers can thus provide effective, evidence-based physical activity interventions for individuals suffering from serious mental illness as well as for those seeking overall general health and productivity as a proactive preventative health measure. Further studies should be done to understand the impact of combining such interventions with traditional mental health treatment including psychopharmacology when necessary and psychotherapy. Even for those with no chemical imbalance or mental illness, for those who are just going through something temporary like the adjustment period after a loss such as the loss of a loved one or processing a big change in life, the evidence is clear even moderate activity 3-4 days per week for 30-60 minutes such as a brisk walk, swimming laps, or a dance class can be very effective in providing benefit in multiple areas of health including mental health and productivity.
Data Sources: HelpGuide.org , the APA.org, statcan.gc.ca, and ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
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