• Beth

Exercise and Mental Health

Move more, Smile More!

The CDC reports that life expectancy is falling in the U.S. This is in part due to an increase rate of drug overdose and suicide, with the highest rates in ages specifically 25-44 years old.

Much research has been done and it has been long known that regular physical activity can lead to improvements in chronic disease. Since it’s publication of the PHYSICAL ACTIVITY GUIDELINES FOR AMERICANS in 2008, the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) has updated this publication to include “Brain health benefits’. These guidelines go further to state that exercise can lead to improvements in cognitive function, sleep, as well as reduce anxiety and depression risk.

The effect of exercise on mental health is both cumulative and acute.

Specifically, by meeting the recommended guidelines of 150 minutes each week of moderate to vigorous physical activity, you could reduce the risk of depression by 21/22% in older adults/adults.

It gets even better! Exercise can be self administered and has fewer negative side effects compared with medication. Studies show that habitual exercise can be part of a multifaceted approach and to be an effective and accessible strategy to positively affect both depression and anxiety.

There are also many hormones suppressed or released as a result of physical activity. These substances help regulate and control many bodily functions. These include but are not limited to BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) which is a neurotransmitter, Epinephrine and Norepinephrine (the ‘fight or flight’ hormone), Cortisol (the stress hormone), as well as other chemicals like Serotonin and Dopamine which can positively affect mood.

There are acute effects with as little as one bout of exercise as well. Single exercise sessions have been shown to decrease anxiety and enhanced mood, reduce anger and confusion immediately post exercise. It is encouraged that people in high demand work environments schedule in lunchtime workouts or mini activities throughout the work day. Cognitive benefits also come with this in the form of enhanced memory, processing speed, and ‘executive function’. All of this leads to more energy and productivity!

Things to keep in mind are that this only works if you actually do it! Also, the “dose-response” effect of exercise on psychological outcomes is still being studied and is a difficult thing to nail down. ‘Guidelines’ nonetheless, can still be suggested for mental well being.

All exercise prescriptions follow a FITT principle of Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type.

  • Frequency:

  • Impactful: Exercise 3 times a week

  • Superior: Exercise 4-5 times a week

  • Intensity:

  • Impactful: Low intensity exercise

  • Superior: Moderate to high intensity exercise

  • Time:

  • Impactful: Sessions should last 1015 minutes each

  • Superior: Sessions should last 20+ minutes each

  • Type: Some studies show that high intensity aerobic activity has the best response BUT...DO WHAT YOU ENJOY! This goes back to it only works if you do it. If you hate kick-boxing or dance aerobics, don’t pick that. If you actually enjoy cycling or swimming, choose that. You are more likely to do it.

*******All of this said, DO NOT alter your treatment plan without consulting your physician first. This is a great discussion to have with the mental health professional you are working with.


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