You already know the various physical benefits of exercise?
Lower blood pressure, reduced risk of diabetes, weight control, and of course, the ultimate achievement of a rocking hot body. But – I bet you didn’t know that exercising can give you above-the-neck benefits, as well!
In the past decade or so, studies have shown that regularly making time for a sweat session provides some massive psychological benefits – including easing symptoms of depression and reducing stress.
The Psychological Benefits of Exercise
Whether you need motivation to – finally – leave your couch for the gym or to take your dog for a walk around the neighborhood, the three mental benefits of physical activity will have you hitting 'pause' on that latest episode of Stranger Things, and heading out the door.
Before we get into the serious stuff we want you to have one key takeaway especially if you are feeling low today.
#1 – Fights Depression
Depression affects an estimated one in 6 adults – 16.6% prevalence rate – each year. But let’s take a step back: what is depression, exactly?
What is depression?
Well, it is a severe mental disorder that negatively affects the way you think, how you feel, and the way you act. Depression is characterized by feelings of sadness and/ or a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed.
I know what you’re thinking, “How is depression any different from general feelings of sadness, like those resulting from the ending of a long-term relationship?” You see: multiple symptoms of depression, such as sleeping issues, loss of energy, and thoughts of death, must persist for more than two weeks for a diagnosis of depression.
Typical treatment of depression
Typically, the treatment of depression involves antidepressants – such as fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), and sertraline (Zoloft) – which are also known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
While the commonly-prescribed SSRIs are generally safe, there have been reports of side effects related to their usage. Specifically, some patients taking SSRIs develop insomnia, headaches, skin rashes, stomach upset, or diarrhea.
Patients are at slightly increased risk for internal bleeding – especially if they are also taking aspirin or another NSAID (Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug), such as naproxen or ibuprofen. It’s also worthwhile to note that the risk of antidepressants inciting self-destructive or violent actions is still the subject of continuing controversy.
Exercise as an alternative treatment
Thankfully, studies have highlighted exercise’s potential in treating mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication, but without the side effects. Exercise can help relieve symptoms of depression by stimulating the release of endorphins – neurotransmitters known to alleviate pain and stress.
And the best part? It’s free – score!
Specifically, a recent study found that just 15 minutes of moderate cardiovascular activity per day can reduce the risk of major depression by 26%. So, even if you don’t have depression, you can exercise regularly to keep yourself free from the clutches of depression!
#2 – Alleviates Anxiety
Okay, quick question. Which do you think is better at relieving anxiety: a warm bubble bath, or a 20-minute treadmill session? If you’ve been paying attention to the theme of this article, you should have no issues getting this right: it’s the 20-minute sweat session!
Studies have shown that adults who engage in regular physical activity experience fewer anxiety symptoms; ultimately supporting the notion that exercise offers a protective effect against the development of anxiety disorders.
Hang on – what are anxiety disorders?
An anxiety disorder is a common psychiatric condition that affects nearly 33.7% of the world's population and is characterized by abnormal levels of – yes, you guessed it – anxiety. So, what is 'abnormal'? To put into perspective: anxiety is, primarily, a question of degree.
It's perfectly normal to feel anxious during stressful periods, like the days before an important exam or to worry about your health when your doctor emails you your health report. But those suffering from anxiety disorder experience unexplained elevated levels of anxiety daily. They feel anxious most days and cannot recollect the last time they felt relaxed.
So – how does exercise help?
As it turns out, a work-out program that consists of at least 20 to 30 minutes of daily exercise can significantly reduce symptoms of generalized anxiety. A 10-week study conducted on individuals prone to panic attacks shows that regular physical activity reduces the severity and frequency of panic attacks.
Even if you're not suffering from anxiety disorders, exercise can help regulate and temper your daily anxiety levels. Now – who wouldn't like to feel more at ease daily?
#3 – Reduces Stress
Exercise is known to increase concentrations of norepinephrine – a neurohormone that moderates your brain’s response to stress. One of the most common psychological benefits of exercise is, therefore, stress relief.
Have you ever felt incredibly stressed out the day after a poor night’s sleep? You’re not alone – studies show that adults who sleep fewer than eight hours a night report higher stress levels than those who sleep at least eight hours a night.
If you're currently tossing and turning in bed whenever night-time comes around, there's another pathway through which exercise can reduce your stress levels: it helps you sleep better. Exercise increases your body temperature, which can result in calming effects on the mind – leading to fewer sheep counting sessions and more shuteye.
Also, exercise can help tune back your circadian rhythm – our bodies in-built alarm clock that controls when we feel alert, and when we feel alert.
You know what to do the next time your stress levels creep up on a rough workday: get out and get sweaty! It'll be good for your mental health, I promise.
While the physical benefits of working out – massive gains in muscle mass, for example – can take many months to manifest, you can reap the psychological benefits of exercise right after a session. So – what's stopping you from improving your mental health?
But, hey, if you’re running low on motivation, here’s 5 tricks that will motivate you to get to the gym right away.
And, of course, if you want to experience the mental health benefits of exercising, make sure you don't miss your scheduled training sessions in the gym! Stay on track with your fitness goals by downloading GymStreak – the intelligent, personal trainer you can keep with you in your pocket.Get GymStreak
Anderson, E., & Shivakumar, G. (2013). Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00027
Choi, D.-W., Chun, S.-Y., Lee, S. A., Han, K.-T., & Park, E.-C. (2018). Association between Sleep Duration and Perceived Stress: Salaried Worker in Circumstances of High Workload. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(4). https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph15040796
Ferguson, J. M. (2001). SSRI Antidepressant Medications: Adverse Effects and Tolerability. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 3(1), 22–27.
Hower, I. M., Harper, S. A., & Buford, T. W. (n.d.). Circadian Rhythms, Exercise, and Cardiovascular Health. Journal of Circadian Rhythms, 16. https://doi.org/10.5334/jcr.164
Paluska, S. A., & Schwenk, T. L. (2000). Physical activity and mental health: Current concepts. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 29(3), 167–180. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200029030-00003
What Is Depression? (n.d.). Retrieved July 18, 2019, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression