Most people with a regular exercise routine will tell you that it makes you feel good physically and 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 focused on physical and health benefits, growing evidence shows that exercise also improves and promotes mental health. Beyond simple stress relief, exercise can help reduce depression and anxiety, this new research shows.
Exercise increases endorphin levels in the brain. These chemicals act as the body’s pain killers and cause increased feelings of happiness.
An American university study examined people suffering from depression over a four-month period. It 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 success rate as for those who only used medication to treat their depression.
These are promising results – and they aren’t the only ones available on the subject. Several other studies have consistently shown that exercise can lead to a significant reduction in depression. Research also shows 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.
Of course, you don’t have to have a clinically significant amount of depression or anxiety to receive the mental health benefits of exercise. Even moderate sadness and feelings of anxiety can be improved with exercise.
The relationship between mental health and exercise can also work in reverse. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health examined teenagers. It found that those with low levels of physical activity and more sedentary behaviour had a much higher likelihood of developing depression after one year. The 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, showing the importance of regular and maintained exercise.
All of this is promising for those suffering from these psychiatric conditions, but simple exercise is not be a cure-all. 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 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 – for your physical and mental well-being.
Dr. Paul Latimer is president of Okanagan Clinical Trials and a Kelowna psychiatrist.