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How Exercise Can Affect Your Mental Health

Jolene Conway
May 31, 2019

In our society, the idea of exercising is often connected with a personal desire to be more fit, or have a better physique.  But did you know that exercise can not only improve your physical health, but your mental health too?

Exercise has been linked to better sleep, increased energy levels, and reduced skeletal muscle tension.  In addition to these benefits, research shows that exercising just a couple times a week can help people with mental health issues by giving them a sense of control, distracting them from negative thoughts, and by creating an opportunity for social engagement.  

Research shows that there are multiple mental health issues that could be diminished with the help of exercise.  These issues include conditions like anxiety and depression, among other things. Many investigations of the connection between exercise and depression have shown that exercise can have a similar effect to antidepressants. In a different study, researchers found that those with anxiety could benefit from exercise because physical activity allows people to get more comfortable with the feelings of excessive sweating, increased heart rate, and other sensations that could normally trigger an anxious person into fight-or-flight mode.  By learning to associate these sensations with exercise, they are more likely to connect these symptoms with safety and fun, rather than danger or panic.

The term “exercise” is very broad, and if you would like to try using exercise to improve your mental and physical well-being, there are a ton of activities you could experiment with.  By choosing an activity that you are already fond of, like gardening, walking your dog, or riding your bike, you may be more likely to stick to it as time progresses.

In general, most mental health professionals are hesitant to prescribe exercise as a solution for mental health issues.  There has not been enough research done to understand which forms of exercise are most effective, or how much is too little or too much.  For this reason, it may be beneficial to have a discussion with your doctor or therapist about exercise to see if it could be a supplementary tool for you during your mental health journey.

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