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Exercise Can Improve Your Mental Health

Now that the weather is turning warmer, it is time to take a pleasant walk in the park, or perhaps jog outside if you jog, or even stretch or do yoga, It seems the warmer months entice us to get more physical activity than we might during the cold winter sheltering months. And this exercise can be good for your mental health.

A paper in the Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry  notes, “Evidence has suggested that exercise may be an often-neglected intervention in mental health care.2

Getting your blood moving through many different activities can really improve mental health: “Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression.3 These improvements in mood are proposed to be caused by exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain and by an influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and, thus, on the physiologic reactivity to stress.”

A Psychology Today blog post asserts that exercise can even be as effective as medication in dealing with certain mental health challenges: “exercise appears to be as good as existing pharmacological interventions across a range of conditions, such as mild to moderate depression….and anxiety, and even reduces cognitive issues in schizophrenia.”

The blog post also attributes this benefit to the way exercise affects our brains: “Regular exercise increases the volume of certain brain regions—in part through better blood supply that improves neuronal health by improving the delivery of oxygen and nutrients; and through an increase in neurotrophic factors and neurohormones that support neuron signaling, growth, and connections. Of critical importance for mental health is the hippocampus—an area of the brain involved in memory, emotion regulation, and learning. Studies in other animals show convincingly that exercise leads to the creation of new hippocampal neurons (neurogenesis), with preliminary evidence suggesting this is also true in humans.  Evidence is accumulating that many mental health conditions are associated with reduced neurogenesis in the hippocampus. The evidence is particularly strong for depression…”

The Mayo Clinic says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity. This exercise should be spread out over a week, and Mayo says 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every day is a good goal.

Psychology Today notes that Psychiatrist Madhukar Trivedi has shown that three or more sessions per week of aerobic exercise or resistance training, for 45 to 60 minutes per session, can help treat even chronic depression. Effects tend to be noticed after about four weeks (which incidentally is how long neurogenesis takes), and training should be continued for 10-12 weeks for the greatest anti-depressant effect.

So, for people struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems, a regular exercise program over the longer-term could potentially really improve your mental health picture. You can use this year’s virtual NAMIWALK on May 30th to get some exercise in the manner of your choice!