Work Hard, Feel Good: Exercise and Mental Health

In our last blogpost, Don’t Go it Alone: Relationships are the Key to Mental Health and a Long Life, we unpacked the affirming revelations of Harvard’s Longevity Study and its conclusions on the power of strong social relationships for achieving a long and happy life.

This week, we look at another important tool for building and maintaining optimal mental health: exercise. A growing body of research continues to illuminate the importance of caring for your body as a way to care for your mind.

Studies show that physical activity can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, in a number of ways, including:

Release healthy biochemicals: If you’ve ever heard of “runner’s high”, you’ve heard about endorphins. These “feel good chemicals”, are released naturally during high-intensity exercise and can help improve brain function and boost your sense of well-being.

Build your brain: As Harvard also notes, low-intensity exercise sustained over time spurs the release of proteins called neutrotrophic or growth factors. Studies show that the hippocampus region of the brain tends to be smaller in those that are depressed. Exercise, however, can boost nerve cell growth in the hippocampus and improves nerve cell connections, helping relieve depression.

Boost self-esteem: Sadly, those with intense dissatisfaction with their appearance are “more likely” to be depressed, anxious and suicidal than those and poor mental health. While we should strive to ensure those around us are comfortable with their appearance and provide support to those that are not, exercise can be a potent tool to helping improve positive self-image and self-worth.

Fight off addiction: As the New York Times notes, those who exercise more are much less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, if compared to inactive people. In a 2012 study, exercise was shown to help those suffering undergoing addiction treatments improve their health and increase confidence in the ability to remain clean and sober. Some experts also point to the benefits of replacing “artificial highs” from drugs and alcohol with happiness and euphoria inducing biochemical, like endorphins that are released during exercise.

Make new friends: We’ve already discussed the power of social relationships to boost happiness; so naturally, team sports can be a great way to build supportive relationships and experience camaraderie. In a recent German study, researchers found that individual athletes were more prone to depressive symptoms than those who played on teams. That’s not to say you should pass on participating in solo sports but instead, find ways to ensure you experience that companionship with your competitors.

We’ve all heard the old adage, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”. While that might not be true, there is growing evidence that shows exercise can help alleviate or keep poor mental health at bay. So whether it’s starting to go for daily walks or joining your hometown sports league, it’s never too late to get moving and get happy.

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