It is widely known that exercise is very important for our health. It also plays a huge role in reducing stress and anxiety and elevating our moods. Physical activities release endorphins in the body which are linked to higher levels of happiness. In addition, exercise can help you concentrate on your body and what you are doing, instead of the negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety (Mayo Clinic, 2017).
Exercise can be a key strategy in addressing mental health issues for people of any age or fitness level. Research has proven that exercise can relieve symptoms of depression, improve brain growth and create neural pathways that provide a sense of calm and wellbeing. An article in Helpguide cited one Harvard study which shows that 15 minutes of running or one hour of walking daily “reduces the risk of major depression by 26 percent”. The same article states that “exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication” and that “maintaining an exercise schedule can prevent you from relapsing”.
Regular exercise can improve your mood and mental health even if you have no mental health issues. It can sharpen your memory and concentration, provide you with a sense of achievement, increase your self-esteem, regulate your sleep patterns, improve resilience and your immune system, and boost your energy.
The general recommendation is to have at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 minutes of aerobic exercise, or a combination of both. It is also recommended that exercise is spread out throughout the week, so 30 minutes of exercise daily for five days is good.
If that sounds daunting, you can start small by exercising once a week for at least one hour and then work your way up. You can also break down half-hour sessions to 15 minutes twice a day if it suits you more. As you do more exercise you will feel more energetic and can increase the length and intensity of your exercise.
Some of the exercises we can do to relieve stress include walking, yoga, swimming, HIIT, cycling and dance can be very good exercises for improving mental health.
Walking is free and accessible to everyone. According to research, low-intense aerobic activity such as walking is best for improving and increasing positive thoughts. And if you do it soon after you wake up, it creates momentum and a positive way to start your day.
Yoga helps practitioners relax and focus on their breathing and their bodies. It provides people the opportunity to do stretching and use breathing to calm the nervous system. Some yoga practice involve chanting that tones the vagus nerve, an important regulator of the nervous system that runs down the back of the throat.
Swimming is another low-impact, rhythmic activity that can boost your mental health. Studies show that swimming for at least 1.5 hours weekly can improve mood, and decrease anxiety and stress levels.
Concentrating on the activities during an HITT class also helps take your mind off your problems. Over time, HIIT can be of benefit to your mental health as resilience builds up and help improve your ability to cope with stress.
Riding a bike can help you relax, especially if this is done in nature. Cyling can decrease anxiety and stress levels. If it is easier or it motivates you to do that in a group, joining a spinning class is an option.
Dance is shown to help alleviate the mood, reduce stress hormones and improve sleep quality among other health benefits. A Korean study on adolescents with mild depression who participated in 12 weeks of dance movement therapy shows that dance reduced symptoms of psychological distress and increased serotonin levels. Another study at the University of Eastern Finland on dance and depression reveals how dance can help us focus on what we are doing and put our worries into the background.
Mental health struggles can make it more difficult to do exercise. If you are feeling exhausted or overwhelmed you can start slow by doing short and easy exercises. Knowing that is important for your mental and physical health, make it a priority and include it in your routine. When exercise becomes a habit, your energy levels will increase and it will become easier to do more.
If you like, exercise with friends or family to make it more fun and it may motivate you better, the social aspect is an added bonus. You can also engage in other physical activities such as housework, or do things that you like such as sports or games. For added variety, change your routine to include a few activities: cycle to school or work, or take a stroll during your break.
You can be creative in incorporating exercise and physical activities into your life. It will improve your mental health and help you enjoy life more fully.
Mayo Clinic. 2017. Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. Accessed on 9 September 2022 at https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495.
Robinson, Lawrence, Segal, Jeanne and Smith, Melinda. 2022. The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise. Helpguide. Accessed on 13 September at https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-health-benefits-of-exercise.htm.
University of Eastern Finland (2022). Dance opens up new opportunities for treating depression. Medical express. Accessed at Dance opens up new opportunities for treating depression (medicalxpress.com) on 11 September 2022.
Valvano, Louisa. 2018. Exercise for Mental Wellbeing. Stress Management Society. Accessed on 9 September 2022 at https://www.stress.org.uk/exercise-for-mental-wellbeing/
Young-Ja, Jeong, et. al (2005). Dance movement therapy improves emotional responses and modulates neurohormones in adolescents with mild depression. International Journal of Neuroscience. Vol 115 Issue 12 p1711-1720