Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health

Not only is exercise good for our bodies, but it's good for our minds too.

This may not surprise you. Certainly, most people with a regular exercise routine will tell you that exercise not only makes us feel good physically, but is a helpful way of reducing stress, improving confidence and self esteem and increasing energy. It adds to a general sense of well-being.

Although most fitness research in the past has focused on physical and health benefits, there is now growing evidence showing that exercise also improves and promotes mental health. Beyond simple stress relief, this new research shows exercise can help to reduce depression and anxiety as well.

In general, it is understood that exercise increases endorphin levels in the brain. These are the chemicals that act as the body's pain killers and cause increased feelings of happiness.

A university study in the US examined people suffering from depression. Over a four month period, the study found that 60 per cent of those who exercised for at least 30 minutes three times a week overcame their depression without medication. This is the same percentage rate as for those who only used medication in their depression treatment.

These are promising results and they aren't the only ones available on the subject. Results in many studies consistently find that exercise can lead to a significant reduction in depression. Studies also show that these benefits can begin as early as the first exercise session and may last after the exercise is finished.

Other studies examined the relationship between exercise and anxiety. Analysis of many studies conducted over the past several decades found that more than 80 per cent concluded that physical activity and fitness are related to the reduction of anxiety. Aerobic exercise such as running, swimming or cycling seems to be the most effective at reducing anxiety.

Of course, you don't have to have a clinically significant amount of depression or anxiety in order to receive the mental health benefits of exercise. Even moderate sadness and feelings of anxiety can be improved with exercise.

Unfortunately, the relationship between mental health and exercise can work in reverse as well. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found examined teenagers and found that those with low levels of physical activity and more sedentary behaviour had a much higher likelihood of developing depression after one year. This study concluded that this lack of activity constituted a risk factor for depression.

Mental ability can also improve with exercise. Some research shows that regular exercise improves cognitive function. One study at a university in Japan looked at a group of volunteers who began a jogging regimen - their memory and mental ability increased throughout the study. When the exercise stopped, the benefits reduced again, showing the importance of a regular and maintained exercise program.

All of this is promising news for those suffering from these psychiatric conditions, but simple exercise may not be a cure-all for every circumstance. Not everyone will get better without more formal treatment from a doctor. If you are depressed or anxious, it is still wise to speak with your doctor about it. Don't be discouraged if jumping on the treadmill doesn't make you feel completely better. Other help is also available. On the other hand, exercise will not make you worse either and everyone can benefit to some degree.

These benefits can be felt even with moderate exercise. You don't necessarily have to spend hours and hours a week at the gym. The important thing is just to get out there and get moving.


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