Ever notice how you can get an overall feeling of well-being after taking a long walk, shoveling snow, dancing, or playing Frisbee with the kids? It’s not just because you can check “get some physical activity” off your to-do list. Turns out, there are physiological reasons why you get that feeling. And for people who suffer from a mental health condition like depression, anxiety or ADHD, exercise can relieve symptoms almost as well as medications, and can sometimes help certain symptoms from coming back.
How does it work? Researchers aren’t completely sure. But we do know that physical activity causes certain substances that affect brain function to kick in. These include:
- Endorphins– brain chemicals that reduce stress or pain and increase feelings of well-being
- Serotonin– a brain chemical that affects mood
- Glutamate and GABA– chemicals that influence parts of the brain that affect emotions and mental clarity
- BDNF(brain-derived neurotropic factor) – a protein that protects nerve cells in the brain that help control depression-like symptoms
Many people have found that exercise helps keep anger, stress, and muscle tension at bay and can help you sleep, which helps lessen stress, boost concentration, and improve self-esteem. In addition, it can help you cope with challenges in a healthier way, instead of turning to behaviors like drinking alcohol, which can actually make symptoms worse.
Recommendations for physical activity are the same for mental health benefits as they are for physical benefits: try for at least 150 minutes per week. But even one hour a week has been shown to help with mood disorders like depression and anxiety and even substance use disorder. But people suffering from mental health conditions may find it hard to do even that small amount. No matter how much you try to convince yourself to get up and move, you just can’t get motivated.
If this happens, remind yourself that just a walk around the block is a great start. Don’t set yourself up for failure by telling yourself you “should” be doing more. Just start somewhere, and hopefully the benefits you start to notice will keep you motivated to build up from there. Finding an activity you actually enjoy can really help you stay motivated.
There’s no doubt that physical activity is beneficial for mind and body. And even just short spurts are helpful. But if you are having symptoms of depression, anxiety or another mental health condition, physical activity may not be enough. Always talk to your doctor or a therapist if your symptoms are troublesome — you may benefit from medication and/or talk therapy.
Whatever you do to boost your activity level – even taking the smallest of steps – give yourself lots of props. Getting started isn’t easy and staying motivated can be challenging. But try. It just might leave you feeling great.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Exercise for stress and anxiety. https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/managing-anxiety/exercisestress-and-anxiety (Accessed 3/1/19)
Helpguide.org. The mental health benefits of exercise. November 2018. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-healthbenefits-of-exercise.htm (Accessed 3/1/19)
Mental Health America. Exercise. http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/fitness-4mind4body-exercise (Accessed 3/1/19)
Mental Health America. Get physically active. http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/get-physically-active (Accessed 3/1/19)
Mayo Clinic. Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. September 27, 2017. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/
depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495 (Accessed 3/1/19)