We all know that exercise is good for your health. That is no great secret. But what about our mental health? Can exercising help us with our emotional problems, our intellectual problems or our addictions? The answer to all of these is a resounding YES. Exercising is one of the best things you can do for yourselves, not only for the sake of your physical body, but for your mind as well. Below you'll find 11 ways exercising a few times a week will help your overall mental health.
1. Reducing Stress
Have you had a rough day? Are you stressed? Head right out of the house and take a walk somewhere. You can also go to the gym and run for a bit. One of the best effects of exercising is stress relief. Getting a healthy sweat going can help manage your mental and physical stress responses. So go ahead and work off those anxious feelings.
2. Boosting your body's happy chemicals
Exercising is never easy, but if you can do it, the body will reward you for it. Exercising releases endorphins, which in turn create feelings of euphoria and happiness. Several studies have shown that exercise has such a powerful effect it can even alleviate symptoms of clinical depression. Many doctors recommend that people who suffer from depression or anxiety start working out. In many cases, exercise can be just as, if not more, effective as antidepressants. Don't worry, you don't need to become a gym junky, just 30 minutes a few times a week can give you this effect.
3. Boosting your self-confidence
Along with anxiety there are usually other unwanted guests - low self-esteem and low self-confidence. It doesn't matter how old you are, hopping on that treadmill and getting those endorphins released will make you feel better about yourself for the whole day. Working out a few times a week will make you feel more secure, less threatened by external factors and more confident in your own abilities and self-worth.
4. Fight depression by exercising outdoors
While the gym is a good place to work out, being outside has been proven by studies to improve our mood and encourage euphoria. Find an outdoor workout that fits you - it can be hiking, climbing, rafting or just taking a jog in a nearby park. An added bonus to the great feeling you'll get and the reduced stress levels is all that vitamin D you'll be soaking from the sun (don't forget your sunscreen!) that can alleviate symptoms of depression. So remember, a little fresh air and sunshine can do wonders for your mental state.
5. Preventing a cognitive decline
It's not fun to talk about, but we all know it's true. As we get older our brains get a little hazy from time to time. Aging, as well as degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, kill off brain cells and shrink the brain in the process. While obviously exercise is not a cure for any of that, it CAN help immunize the brain somewhat against cognitive decline, boosting the chemicals in the brain that help prevent degeneration of the hippocampus - the part of the brain in charge of memory and learning new things.
6. Reducing your anxiety
Studies have found that a 20 minute jog is actually better at alleviating anxiety than a warm bubble bath. The happy chemicals that get released during and after a good work out help us calm down in a way that a bubble bath could never do. To reduce your sensitivity to anxiety, go on the treadmill for moderate-to-high intensity aerobic workouts.
7. Boosting Brainpower
Various studies conducted on the effect of cardiovascular exercise on mice and humans have revealed that exercise can actually create new brain cells (also known a neurogenesis) while enhancing brain performance overall. In addition, experts have discovered that a brain-derived protein known as BDNK increases with a good workout, and helps in better decision making, higher-form thinking and speed of learning. So from now on, you can call your gym pants your "smarty-pants".
8. Fighting addiction
It doesn't matter what you're addicted to, the effect is usually the same. Our brains are wired to release dopamine (the neurotransmitter that makes us feel pleasure) when we surrender to our addictions. It could be drugs, shopping, gambling, sweets, television or a thousand other things. For the brain it is all the same - it releases pleasure.
With drugs, our brain becomes completely dependent on these materials to release dopamine, which makes the addiction that much stronger. However, exercise has been proven to help with recovery from addiction. Short sessions can distract our brain from the pleasure it seeks by making it produce endorphins instead of dopamine. This helps the cravings and 'reboots' the body's clock, thus helping those that cannot fall asleep without their favorite addiction to relax and drift off.
9. Getting more done
Feeling like you have absolutely no incentive to get things done? Go for a run, right now. Studies show that people who take time to exercise on a regular basis have more energy and get more done than their more sedentary counter-parts. An extra tip: Experts believe that a midday exercise is the most effective in this regard, due to the body's circadian rhythms.
10. Tapping into your creativity
Many believe that creativity is best achieved from a relaxed state, sitting comfortably in front of a blank page or pondering a problem. Experts would disagree. In facts, research shows that a good cardio-vascular workout can boost creativity for up to 2 hours afterwards. So if you're challenged by a tough problem, don't sleep on it - run first, take a shower and then go to work on it, you might find that you are thinking more clearly and arrive at better results.
11. Socialize for added benefits
Whether it's a game of football or a group class at the gym, studies show that exercising with others enhances all the effects we've just discussed, especially self-confidence, pleasure and fighting symptoms of depression. Working out is much more fun when done with others. So if you want to supercharge these effects, find a group or a workout buddy to really get the most out of time spent exercising.