a workout for your mental health

Working out to improve physical health may be one of your top priorities, but did you know that a workout can also be beneficial for your mental health?

It is well-established that regular exercise is an amazing preventative measure for many of the health issues that can develop over the course of a lifetime. The risks of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes can be significantly lowered by engaging in an exercise regimen, even at low-to-moderate intensity.

But what if a workout could improve mental health, or have a positive impact on depression and anxiety? More and more research is revealing the benefits of exercise on mental health for all ages. Working out and keeping fit not only benefits your physical health by improving health metrics like blood pressure, heart rate, and body fat, but workouts and fitness routines can even improve your mental health and wellbeing.

How can a workout be beneficial for your mental health?

Exactly how exercise and physical activity benefits mental health and wellbeing is not fully understood, and the topic of extensive research. That’s not to say that there aren’t some clues that point to how this might occur.

One significant pathway might be through neurobiology – that is through changes that occur to brain cells. Some research suggests that exercise can result in the formation of new blood vessels, which may then increase the amount of blood and nutrients to brain cells. There is some evidence suggesting that changes to the structure of specific parts of the brain may also be a result of physical activity.

There is also the idea that increasing physical activity increases the amounts of signalling molecules in the brain (neurotransmitters), such endorphins, that increase feelings of well being, which may improve mood and make you feel good.

Aside from these neurobiological mechanisms, it is likely that regular workouts can improve mental health through other ways. For example, some studies point to the fact that participating in regular physical activity can have positive effects on self-esteem, particularly in young people.

Exercising regularly associated with fewer poor mental health days

In a research study published in The Lancet Psychiatry researchers found that on average, participants with prior mental health woes experienced about three-and-a-half days of poor mental health over a 30-day period. When looking at the benefits of exercise, the researchers further examined people who exercised in some capacity compared to those who did not. The researchers found that these people experienced an average of only one-and-a-half days of poor mental health per month.

What types of workout are most beneficial for mental health?

When it comes to which types of exercise are beneficial for mental health, there does not seem to be any discrimination between specific exercise types. Physical activity in most forms, appears to have at least some beneficial effects.

In the above study, when the researchers looked closer into the types of physical activities that were associated with benefits to mental health, they found that even simple household chores had an effect. Household chores did, however, have a lower amount of benefit on mental health when compared with other activities such as sports or aerobic and gym exercises. These kinds of physical activities reduced the 30-day mental health burden by 22%.

Other studies have found improvements in psychological wellbeing with regular exercises such as yoga and walking. High intensity interval training (HIIT) improved anxiety and depression in some studies, while aerobic exercise three times per week has significant effects on self-esteem, mental health, anxiety, and insomnia.

Too much exercise may contribute to worse mental health

It is important to note that one study found too much exercise—whether frequency or duration—actually contributed to worse mental health. A sweet spot for moderation is crucial in physical and mental health as with most things.

What about exercise and psychiatric conditions?

Research looking at physical activity levels among people with mental health conditions who were admitted to inpatient mental health wards found that patients with higher activity levels spent less time in acute mental health wards when admitted. In fact, the more active the patient was, the less time they spent admitted to the hospital. 

This study suggests that psychiatric care shouldn’t focus on just the mental aspects of care, but also needs an emphasis on healthy, non-sedentary lifestyle choices to reduce the rate and severity of relapse among those with mental disorders.

References:

David Lubans, Justin Richards, Charles Hillman, Guy Faulkner, Mark Beauchamp, Michael Nilsson, Paul Kelly, Jordan Smith, Lauren Raine, Stuart Biddle. Physical Activity for Cognitive and Mental Health in Youth: A Systematic Review of Mechanisms. Pediatrics Sep 2016, 138 (3) e20161642; 

Chekroud, S.R., Gueorguieva, R., Zheutlin, A.B., Paulus, M., Krumholz, H.M., Krystal, et al. (2018). Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1.2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. Lancet Psychiatry. Published online 8 August 2018

Abdin S, Welch RK, Byron-Daniel J, Meyrick J. The effectiveness of physical activity interventions in improving well-being across office-based workplace settings: a systematic review. Public Health. 2018 Jul;160:70-76. doi: 10.1016/j.puhe.2018.03.029. Epub 2018 May 16. PMID: 29751224.

Martland R, Mondelli V, Gaughran F, Stubbs B. Can high-intensity interval training improve physical and mental health outcomes? A meta-review of 33 systematic reviews across the lifespan. J Sports Sci. 2020 Feb;38(4):430-469. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2019.1706829. Epub 2019 Dec 31. PMID: 31889469.

Gilani SRM, Feizabad AK. The effects of aerobic exercise training on mental health and self-esteem of type 2 diabetes mellitus patients. Health Psychol Res. 2019 Mar 11;7(1):6576. doi: 10.4081/hpr.2019.6576. PMID: 30997432; PMCID: PMC6441819.

Korge, Joseph, and David Nunan. “Higher participation in physical activity is associated with less use of inpatient mental health services: A cross-sectional study.” Psychiatry research259 (2018): 550-553

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