Why exercise works as a no-cost mental-health hack
Written By Alli Spotts-De Lazzer, MA, LMFT, LPCC, CEDS-S
Reprinted from Psychology Today
On March 2, 2022, the World Health Organization announced, “In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%.” With so many of us struggling with mental health issues right now, accessible, simple options that can help us improve negative symptoms are especially important, such as physical activity. It’s an affordable self-help hack anyone can do. Although, many don’t.
Why is that? I suspect it’s partially because exercise advice often comes as a mandate without explanation: “Do more exercise, and you’ll feel better.” But why does physical activity work as a method to manage or improve mental health, specifically anxiety and depression symptoms? How much physical activity is enough to work? Is easy, gentle, and doable movement enough to make improvements, or does it have to be intense and strenuous? To help shed light, I consulted two exercise researchers—Brian Cook and Jessica Barker.
Why physical activity helps improve symptoms of anxiety and depression
Cook explains, “Under normal conditions, exercise affects neurotransmitters and several other biochemical responses that are implicated in things like anxiety, depression, stress reactivity, mood, cognitive flexibility, etc.” Notice that he says “normal conditions.” But the pandemic has been anything but “normal.” (For a comprehensive study of the thousands of molecular changes and biochemical effects of exercise, Cook suggests consulting the paper, “Molecular Choreography of Acute Exercise.”)
Barker offers this explanation to help us conceptualize how physical activity can counter depression:
In general, depression is all about your nervous system being, well, depressed. Physical activity is typically about activation and movement. Exercise can help depression by promoting that overall bodily sense of homeostasis metabolically, cardiovascularly, physically, and mentally. Physical activity literally targets some of the core symptoms of depression (e.g., slowed mental and physical activities).
Looking at it in this way, it makes sense. Activity more or less counterbalances the slowness and heaviness of depression.
Regarding anxiety, she makes three points:
- If done in healthy ways, exercise can facilitate “feelings of accomplishment, self-efficacy, and positive self-evaluation.”
- “From a physiological standpoint, exercise can serve as a regulator of emotion by directly affecting the nervous system as well as providing a distraction from anxiety-producing environmental stimuli.”
- Exercise can encourage “deeper breathing, improved metabolic profiles, and improved physical abilities.”
Again, it makes sense that any of these could help lessen anxiety symptoms such as racing worry and self-questioning.
Is there proof that physical activity helps to deal with depression and anxiety?
Science is constantly evolving, but as of now, it’s well documented that exercise helps to improve depression and anxiety. Barker reminds us that research has concluded that physical activity can be as effective as anti-depressants.
How much exercise and what kind is typically needed to improve anxiety and depression?
For a straightforward formula (for those who like to check off boxes), Cook says, “20-30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise most, if not all days of the week for a sustained period of at least 12-16 weeks.” But he also said this:
It doesn’t take much to make a big impact. Too many people have misconceptions that exercise must be a High-Intensity Interval Training (“HIIT”) workout, or other forms of exhaustive nonsense. The literature is quite clear that simply staying active is important. Walk a little more, sit a little less, literally stop and smell the roses while you are out and about, do a mindful form of movement like yoga or tai chi, ride a bike, tend to a garden, etc. You can get “enough exercise” just by keeping your body moving and limiting modern society’s “conveniences” that result in sedentary behavior.
As you can see, even gentle, unregimented increases in movement matter. This applies to all of us, regardless of physical or mental health or overall ability or disability.
As with anything potentially helpful, there are risks
Exercise can backfire on helping mental health in a few ways.
- As an eating and body image specialist, I see people focusing on accomplishing weight-loss and shape goals through exercise, which can become result-focused and drown out the benefits they’re receiving from physical activity.
- Barker warns: “Physical activity should be nutritionally supported, and rest and recovery are essential parts of any exercise routine. When exercise is done above energy availability, or in unsafe ways, physical activity can increase anxiety.”
- Cook reminds us that “exercise exists on a continuum. Most people can stay active with no adverse effects. However, for some people vulnerable to it, exercise dependence or addiction can happen and lead to other problems like burnout, overuse injuries, emotional problems, or eating disorders.”
The bottom line about anxiety, depression, and physical activity
After more than two years, this pandemic might be shifting to endemic (or not). For that and other reasons, we remain in a time of heightened emotions that includes extra fear and sadness. The good news is that we all have affordable, sensible aid at our fingertips: physical activity.
If you want some relief from emotional unrest, you will probably benefit from finding gratifying physical activity. Maybe it feels good, results in feelings of accomplishment, provides social opportunities, or offers some other personal plus. If you find satisfaction in what you’re doing, you’re likely to keep it up.
And please don’t worry about what’s the best form of exercise. “There is no ‘best’ exercise. Anyone who tells you what to do, or why their form of exercise is the best, is usually selling something. So never overlook the financial incentive of programs that claim to have answers or be the best,” says Cook.
Physical activity can be an effective antidote to depression, a form of anxiety management, and a typically reliable method for boosting mental health. After a rough couple of years where exercise was often limited, reduced, or nonexistent due to lockdowns, right now could be a fantastic time to give the healing powers of physical activity a try.
This blog is provided for informational purposes and does not provide therapy or professional advice.