In any given year one in five people will experience a mental illness. And by the age of 40, 50% of people will either have had a mental illness or are currently dealing with one. Behavioural therapy and medications are often first options for improving mental health. But more and more research has shown the importance of exercise in not only preventing mental illness, but as a treatment as well.
Mental illnesses include depression, addictions and anxiety, as well as personality disorders. Of these, anxiety and depression are the most common, with depression being the leading cause of disability worldwide. However, given the stigma around mental health issues, the true number may be much higher. Left untreated, these diseases can result in physical illness and death.
Exercise can Make Your Happy
Exercise and activity have long been known to improve mood. Anyone who regularly exercises can attest to that. You go out for your activity and instantly feel better. And it doesn’t have to be a long session. People report feeling happier even after ten minutes of activity. A feeling that can extend into the next day.
In a study of more than 1.2 million adults, those who exercised reported having 1.5 fewer days in the past month of poor mental health. And the greatest benefits occurred in those people who exercised 45 minutes or more for three or more days per week. Over time, this can result in less likelihood for getting depression and anxiety. And people who had a chronic disease and exercised cut their chances of being hospitalized for a mental health problem in half.
It doesn’t seem to matter what type of activity you do. Whether it’s team sports, cycling, walking, running or aerobics, all provide benefits. Even active household chores can reduce the chances for depression. In addition, people reported greater enjoyment during moderate intensity exercise compared to high intensity. And greater enjoyment after interval-type exercise compared to continuous. This may be the result of moderate and interval-type activities being more comfortable.
But it’s possible that people who are already experiencing a mental illness or low mood, may choose not to exercise. Even though exercise can improve your mood, the hardest time to do it is often when your down, depressed or anxious.
Exercise for Treating Mental Illness
Numerous studies indicate exercise can be an effective treatment for people with existing depression and other mental illnesses. In people with major depressive disorder, exercise had a large effect at reducing symptoms of depression. And the benefits of exercise were reported after less than four weeks. Less than the time for most antidepressant medications to work.
While exercise is beneficial at all levels of intensity, it appears higher intensity exercise may be more effective than low intensity. And even after 30 minutes of exercise, people with depression reported feeling better. And it’s not just aerobic exercise that’s beneficial. Strength training can also reduce symptoms in people with depression. And exercise is as effective as antidepressants for non-severe depression. Exercise has also been found to be beneficial in people with clinical anxiety and schizophrenia. This has led to many guidelines recommending exercise as a treatment for depression.
How Exercise Works
Exercise results in a number of improvements to how you feel and how your brain functions. Indirectly, exercise improves the quality of your sleep. And with better sleep, we tend to feel better. More directly, a single session of exercise can improve your mood, boost your creativity and strengthen your memory. In people with depression, just 30 minutes of exercise was enough to improve mood.
While the biological foundations for exercise reducing depression aren’t fully known, it may have to do with both hormonal and brain changes. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins and endocannabinoids. Endorphins are the feel-good hormones that reduce pain or discomfort associated with activity. Endocannabinoids work on the same system affected by marijuana, and reduce pain and improve mood.
In the brain, low levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and a smaller hippocampus have been associated with a number of mental illnesses. BDNF is important for the growth of nerves in the brain and development of new connections. And the hippocampus is associated with learning, memory and mood. Exercise increases levels of BDNF both in people with depression and without. Exercise also increases hippocampus volume.
With all the benefits of exercise on mental health, it’s important to recognize that for people with a mental illness simple daily tasks can be a challenge. And taking an antidepressant or other medication may be easier than exercising. But for others, exercise is a simple and cost-saving activity to maintain and improve your mental health.
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