Exercise and Mental Health: How Physical Activity Improves Mood, Cognition, and Overall Wellness
“Food is the most widely abused anti-anxiety drug in America, and exercise is the most potent yet underutilized antidepressant.” — Bill Phillips, nutrition and fitness author
There are many proven benefits of regular physical activity. It’s well known that exercise can help people control their weight and decrease their risk of health conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure, but it has also been shown to increase energy levels, improve sleep quality, and boost self-confidence. Unfortunately, only 23% of American adults get enough exercise, according to statistics from the CDC.
Exercise is so beneficial for health that the government recommends adults get as much physical activity as they can throughout the day. Kaitie Delgado, a Registered Clinical Dietitian and ACSM-Certified Personal Trainer at Hendricks Regional Health, explains:
“The new 2020 guideline is that you should be moving as much as possible. It used to be, and it will still be encouraged, that you get 150 minutes of moderate physical activity every week. You may have heard the suggestion that you do a 10-minute walk in the morning, a 10-minute walk at lunch and a 10-minute walk at dinner. Now they’re saying that you should be doing that all day long, and that the more activity you have, the better.” - Kaitie Delgado, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, ACSM-CPT
In addition to the numerous physical health benefits that exercise provides, it can also improve many aspects of mental health. For example, research has shown that exercise can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression after only a single session of physical activity. Exercise is also highly effective for alleviating feelings of distress, and it has been shown to increase cognitive functioning and mental acuity, especially among older adults.
For these reasons and more, physical exercise is a simple and effective method you can use to improve your mental health, regardless of whether or not you have a diagnosed mental health condition. We spoke with Cummins’ own Letitia Haywood, Director of Operations for Boone County and an advocate of the benefits of exercise, to learn more.
Exercise and the Mind-Body Connection
"I recognize the benefits of exercise for mental health because I know how it makes me feel better," says Letita Haywood, LCSW, LCAC, C-IAYT, and Director of Operations for Boone County at Cummins BHS. In addition to her 25+ years working in the field of mental health, Letitia is also a yoga facilitator and International Certified Yoga Therapist.
You may be wondering how exercise, an activity that uses our physical body, can have an effect on our mental state. In an earlier blog post about laughter, we explained that our physiological state can actually change our emotions and mood, an interaction commonly referred to as the mind-body connection. In the same way that laughing can make us feel happy, exercise can affect our minds by altering activity in areas of the brain that control motivation, mood and memory.
“Research has proven exercise to be a good source of medicine for many mental health issues,” Letitia says. “We know that those who exercise feel energetic throughout the day, sleep more deeply at night, experience greater clarity of mind, tend to have a greater outlook on life, are more optimistic and feel a greater sense of happiness, self-confidence and overall well-being. Research has also proven that exercise relieves stress and boosts overall mood.”
On top of its impact on energy and mood, physical activity tends to improve memory, cognition, and neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s natural ability to change the way it operates. This can be especially beneficial for people who suffer from trauma-related stress and anxiety, as Letitia explains. “When I was participating with the team at Heartland Yoga Community, we worked with stroke victims, veterans with chronic pain and veterans with PTSD to demonstrate the long-term effects of yoga on their brains, their mood, their anxiety, and on any residual trauma effects that they had from their service time. We saw some phenomenal results. The veterans continued to come back, and we knew their minds were being rejuvenated just by way of their self-report,” she says.
According to Letitia, the restorative effects of exercise make it an ideal way to manage the symptoms of a variety of cognitive and mood disorders:
“Exercise can positively impact anxiety, depression, ADHD, PTSD, and even bipolar disorder. Back when I did my first practice with Larue Carter Hospital, they incorporated daily exercise for the adults who had schizophrenia, just to keep them mobile and not sitting in the corner of a room. It can really change the perspective of any individual that has a mental health disorder. It’s an opportunity to breathe deeply, to relax, to socialize, to strengthen their muscles and to strengthen their brain output, just by changing the environment and doing something that lifts the heart rate and helps calm the nervous system.”
How to Begin Reaping the Rewards of Exercise
If you’d like to begin exercising for your physical and mental health, then you’re in luck, because it’s not difficult to get started. Some people hear the word “exercise” and think they need to join a gym or start doing long-distance running, but your physical activity doesn’t need to be high in intensity to provide health benefits. “It’s been noted through research that modest amounts of exercise can make a difference, which is fabulous news for those who may not have tons of time to commit to the gym,” Letitia says. “No matter one’s age or fitness ability, exercise can be modified to be a powerful tool to help anyone feel better mentally and physically.”
Before beginning any exercise regimen, it’s a good idea to talk to your physician about what kind of physical activity would be most appropriate for you. This is especially important if you have certain medical complications like high blood pressure, a heart condition or weak joints. Once you know what kind of exercise will suit you best, it’s important to choose an activity that is both challenging and enjoyable for you. “What feels good to you? What makes you smile but also makes you want to scream a little bit when you have to do it?” Letitia says.
When you begin exercising, be sure to take things slowly at first and ease into your routine. Exercising too strenuously, too soon increases your risk of sustaining an injury, so you should start with lower-intensity exercises and gradually increase their difficulty when they are no longer challenging for you. Letitia offers a few suggestions that you can consider:
“If you’re a runner, then maybe you can start with a walk-run program, where you walk for one minute and then run for one minute. If you’re older and you have some joint issues, then you can start with walking, and maybe that program would be walking for 15 minutes one day and then taking a day off to do some strength training exercises. I also think you should try to find an accountability buddy who can say, ‘Hey, Letitia, we didn’t do our five minutes yesterday. Let’s make sure to get in ten minutes today.’ It’s always nice to have that support and accountability when you’re doing something that you know is good for you, that you can try to get out of by making excuses, but that you feel really good about when it’s all done.”
Getting regular exercise is an easy, inexpensive and surprisingly effective way we can manage and improve our mental health. However, the physical component of exercise isn’t the only thing that makes it good for us. When done correctly, exercise also has a mental and a spiritual component, as Letitia explains:
“It isn’t just physical exercise that leads to better mental health. We want to make sure that we’re going a little bit deeper and focusing on body, mind and spirit as a collective, whole-person exercise experience. We might do that through deep breathing exercises, positive affirmations, or participating in an exercise group or an organized sport—things that feed our mental body as well as our social, more spiritual body. The three have to go together to provide the greatest benefit to our mental health.”
Looking for more ways to improve your mental health through basic wellness interventions? We recommend our posts on nutrition and sleep below!