mental illness

The keys to happiness in life vary from one person to the next, covering a variety of things like having a family, earning plenty of money, experiencing true love, and having a satisfying career. Few people may consider exercise one of these keys. Exercise is often viewed as a practical way to strengthen muscles, lose a little weight, or boost the immune system and prevent a few of the one billion colds Americans get every year. However, research has shown that exercise can do wonders for a person’s happiness.

This is great news for those who are looking for alternative ways to treat their mental health as well as those who already exercise regularly. Let’s explore what the connection between going for a jog and easing the symptoms of mental illness really is and how exercise could change your life.

How does physical exercise affect the mind?

While many people may think of the mind and the body as two separate entities, they are actually very intertwined. Exercise causes the body to produce endorphins and enkephalins, natural feel-good hormones that ease stress and make your problems feel more manageable. By exercising regularly, you can also increase the volume of certain brain regions. This occurs partially through exercise delivering oxygen and nutrients to the body, creating a better blood supply that improves neuronal health. In short, exercise helps your brain form more neurons that grow and connect to one another.

Recent evidence has suggested that many mental health care conditions, such as depression, are associated with the state of the hippocampus. As an area of the brain that is involved in memory, learning, and emotion regulation, the hippocampus needs a certain level of neuron creation in order to stay healthy. Reduced creation of neurons in the hippocampus has been associated with the development of mental health issues.

Many anti-depressants are even known to do their work through increasing the creation of neurons in the hippocampus. Exercise does a similar job in creating new neurons in the hippocampus that help store new memories, keep old ones separate and distinct, and process new information.

Exercise’s effect on depression and anxiety

As mentioned above, depression is one of the conditions that can benefit the most from exercise. A recent study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that running for just 15 minutes per day or walking for an hour can reduce the risk of major depression by 26%. Maintaining an exercise schedule can help those with depression manage their symptoms as well as keep them from relapsing.

In addition to growing neurons, exercise can also reduce inflammation, release endorphins, and create new activity patterns to promote feelings of calm and happiness. Exercise can serve as a great distraction, providing you with a break from negative thoughts. When you’re doing something like simply sitting in traffic, which the average American commuter does for about 42 hours every year, a cycle of bad thoughts can feed depression and make symptoms worst. Going for a jog or lifting weights can give you quiet time but keep your mind occupied with completing the exercise at hand.

This benefit of distraction is also helpful for those with anxiety. Physical activity interrupts the flow of worries that comes with the condition. If you go for a hike, which was the fourth-most popular outdoor activity in the U.S. in 2017, your brain will be focused on traversing tricky terrain and following the right path. Adding an element of mindfulness that brings your focus to the sensation of your feet hitting the ground or the wind against your skin can also help relieve anxiety symptoms.

How much exercise do you need?

All of this evidence may sound like you need to constantly be exercising in order to feel a difference in the state of your mental health, but you truly don’t need that much. With just ten minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise fifteen times per week, you’ll be achieving the recommended amount for your mind’s optimal health.

Try incorporating activities like yoga, resistance band exercises, and lifting weights into your exercise routine twice a week to strengthen your muscles. Be careful to not overdo it with activities like lifting, as you can seriously injure yourself. If your muscles just feel tired, that means that you’ve hit the right amount of exercise to benefit your body and your brain.

Anyone living with mental illness likely has their own treatment methods, but adding regular exercise into the mix can result in some surprising benefits. If you believe that you or your child have an undiagnosed condition, first talk to your doctor. Although about 93% of children have been to a doctor in the last year, medical professionals can’t always diagnose a mental illness unless the patient is open and honest about what they’re experiencing. Start by speaking with a trusted physician and then you’ll be able to discover the treatments that work for you. And you never know, exercise just might be one of them.