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exercise and mental health

Exercise and Mental Health

The brilliant photo above comes from this month’s Death to the Stock Photo photo pack. The arrival of a pack of photos with the theme “Sweat” was one of many signs that came this week to convince me to (a) actually exercise and (b) write this post.

Let’s start this post out with some honesty: I have formally exercised exactly twice in the last 30 days. So this post is as much to convince me of the many benefits of exercising as it is to convince you.

I spent about 15 minutes doing yoga two days ago, after not doing more than a downward-facing dog or a forward fold here and there since July. After spending 8 hours standing (with abominable posture) at work, it felt soooo good on my tight legs and back and underused abs. Why don’t I do this more often?
Because I’m lazy. Because I think of other things that are more important–crafting my Pinterest boards or perfecting my homemade hot cocoa recipe or finishing Netflix’s Amanda Knox documentary.* The dumbest reason I have for not exercising is that I’m too stressed, too anxious, too bleggghhhh-feeling.
But these are actually great reasons for exercising. You probably already know that. Hell, I already know that. But it’s hard (for me) to exercise on a good day–so it’s 300% harder on a bad day.
Before we dive in though, I want to make an important note: I am talking about exercise with the goal of feeling good. Not with a goal of looking a certain way. If you have or are recovering from any sort of eating disorder or exercise addiction, exercise may affect your mental health differently. I want to make it completely clear here that I am not extolling weight loss or achieving some bullshit beauty ideal based on air-brushed magazine photos. I am talking about exercise in the context of improving mood and mental health. If you feel that reading this may be triggering to you, you may want to skip this one. 

Exercise & Mood

There are a TON of studies out there touting the beneficial effects that exercise has on mood. After all, exercise triggers your body to release endorphins, which increase your pain tolerance and elevate your mood. That’s because they act on the same receptors in your brain as morphine. The rush of endorphins that occurs when breaking a sweat is also called the “runner’s high.”

Epidemiological studies have linked high activity levels to lower rates of depression. Of course, one must evoke the mantra that correlation does not equate to causation here, but researchers have worked to find a causative effect.

A 2007 study compared four groups of participants with major depressive disorder (MDD), who each received a different therapy for six weeks:

exercise and mental health

  1. Home-based exercise
  2. Supervised exercise in a group setting
  3. Antidepressant SSRI medication (sertraline, 50-200 mg daily)
  4. Placebo pill

After six weeks, the participants took part in structure clinical interviews and completed the the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D). At this time, 40% of the total participants no longer met the criteria for MDD.

The percentage of participants who were no longer classified as having MDD were as follows:

  1. Home-based exercise – 40%
  2. Supervised exercise in a group setting – 45%
  3. Antidepressant medication (sertraline, 50-200 mg daily) – 37%
  4. Placebo pill – 31%

As you can see, both groups assigned to exercise experienced remission from depressive symptoms at the same rate as those on the SSRI. While there was bigger difference between the exercise groups and the placebo group, it was not a significant difference, in a statistical sense.

So, does this mean that exercising improves our moods because we expect it to?

Partially, yes. However, this study does suggest that the “placebo-effect” is not responsible for the entirety of the therapeutic benefits of exercise. In fact, the SSRI group in this study derived a benefit closer to that of the placebo group than the exercise groups did.

When the primary author of that study followed up with the participants one year later, their likelihood of remission was not predicted by which group they had been in for the initial study. However, those who reported regular exercise had a lower rate of relapse than their more sedentary counterparts.

Still, couldn’t this just be because those who relapsed into depression were less likely to exercise? During the periods in which I’ve veered toward depression, walking two blocks to class seemed hard enough. Forget about running those blocks.

And yet, the evidence favoring exercise does continue.

Exercise & Anxiety

Exercising has been linked to a reduction in anxiety sensitivity among anxious individuals, suggesting that it could be useful in preventing panic attacks. In this way, exercise may be similar to exposure therapy.

Exposure therapy, or exposure treatment, exposes an individual to a stressful or scary situation, place, object, or person without the patient being in danger of any bodily harm. The idea is that being continually exposed to the anxiety-inducer makes it less threatening. It’s why flying on a plane usually gets less scary for people the more times you do it. With exercise, it may be that your body is becoming conditioned to the “fight or flight” mode that your body goes into both while exercising and while panicked.

One meta-analysis of studies done on the effects of exercise on depression and anxiety does note that exercise seems to be the most beneficial to people in which any disorder is subclinical.

Type of Exercise

The studies discussed here thus far have all focused on primarily aerobic exercise. But as anyone who’s spent a hot second on Instagram (or in California) know, yoga is a particular form of exercise/spirituality/lifestyle that is touted as having superior benefits to both body and mind.

Most of this is anecdotal evidence, of course. Scientists have found that yoga may have a preventative role in maintaining mental health, improve mood and lessened anxiety in young adults, and

None of that is to say that individual practitioners’ opinions, not to mention thousands of years of yoga practice, are not important as well. A lot of people have found relief from their mental health problems through various forms of yoga, and that in itself proves that yoga has therapeutic usefulness.

I’m going to limit how much I say about mental health + yoga at this time, as I have plans to write a whole post on that topic. After all, yoga was not designed as an exercise for the body alone. In the original Indian tradition, it has a spiritual and meditative core–and that certainly relates to mental health.

Meditation, as its own practice and as related to yoga, has plenty of scientific backing. It can increase immune function and improve your ability to regulate your moods; it can decrease pain, stress, depression, and anxiety.

Are You Convinced?

I already knew the gist of this stuff. You know, the exercise = good, and the fact that physical health is important to mental health and vice versa. But going into the specifics of it makes me believe it a bit more.

Hopefully, believing it will help me actually put it into practice.

I spent about 20 minutes yesterday and the day before doing yoga. My goal is to spend at least 20 minutes doing ANY type of exercise (other than cookie curls and wine lifts) for the rest of the month. I know, my first day of exercising was on the fifth of the month–but cut me some slack. Going from exercising for maybe 20 minutes per week to 20 minutes per day is a big commitment. Anything bigger than that, and I don’t really trust myself to hang in there.

(I’m already worried about this commitment, as I am notoriously bad at reaching goals that I set on this blog.)

If you exercise regularly, do you feel like it benefits your mental health? (Also, how do you make yourself do it? This is truly mystifying to me.)  Has anyone with anxiety, depression, or another mental health issue found relief through exercise?

Let me know in the comments below or throw some tweets out @rsuppok! If you want some exercise inspiration, check out my Look Good, Feel Good Pinterest board as well.

*If you have watched Netflix’s documentary about Amanda Know, please find me on Twitter, @rsuppok. No one I know IRL has watched it yet and I am desperate to talk about it. Come bash Nick Pisa and that Italian investigator and all slut shamers with me!

exercise and mental health

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