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How Exercise Promotes Mental Health

Overcoming Barriers to Exercise, How Much Exercise Is Needed, Exercise can improve our mental health, How Exercise Promotes Mental Health

Exercise isn’t just good for building a strong body; it also helps to restore and reinforce mental health. In fact, some researchers believe that routine exercise can be as beneficial in treating anxiety and mood disorders as antidepressant drugs. That’s why, at Palms Behavioral Health in Harlingen, Texas, we make physical activity a priority.

How Exercise Helps Our Brains

Exercise provides multiple benefits to mental functioning, for example:

  • Decreasing the effects of stress, which also reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Improving mood 
  • Enhancing memory and cognition
  • Providing a distraction so a person’s brain can stop worrying about something that is bothering them

Why Exercise Helps Our Brains

Exercise can improve our mental health on several different levels:

  • Chemical – Scientists are exploring the links between exercise and the chemicals in our brains. They think that physical activity may cause our brain to release dopamine and serotonin, two chemicals that can make us feel good, and which many people with illnesses lack adequate amounts of. At the same time, exercise is thought to reduce hormones that can make us feel stressed, including adrenaline and cortisol.
  • Increased flow – Studies seem to show that exercise improves blood and oxygen levels in the brain. A study of rats showed that rats who exercised had more oxygen and blood in their brains than rats that were sedentary. Having plenty of blood and oxygen in the brain allows for the growth and repair of cells.
  • Emotional – Exercise can also give people a sense of accomplishment. This can trigger a cascade effect, leading people to be more able to do other things that they need to get done to take care of themselves and be successful.
  • Improved self-image – People are also more likely to feel good about themselves if they like what they see in the mirror. Exercise helps people achieve a healthy weight and muscle tone. 
  • Opportunities to connect – A shared interest can be a good way to form a connection with another person. For some people, this shared interest can be a physical activity like bicycling, hiking, jogging, playing soccer, etc. Having connections with other people supports a sense of belonging, which is a great way to support mental health.
  • Distress tolerance – Exercise creates physical stress that imitates emotional stress and helps people to learn how to tolerate distress in general.

How Much Exercise Is Needed

If you are not used to exercising, you should talk to your doctor before you start. In general, 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise are considered optimal, but you may have different needs based on your age and medical conditions. If that amount of time seems overwhelming, it’s okay to start small and gradually increase your activity. Anything is better than nothing, and it’s more important that you exercise consistently than it is that you hit a certain number of minutes right away. Consistent exercise will allow you to build up your stamina over time.

Overcoming Barriers to Exercise

Knowing you should exercise and actually making it happen are two different things. There are a variety of reasons why people don’t exercise, all of which can be worked around:

  • Lack of childcare – if you are a busy parent who doesn’t exercise because you don’t have someone to watch your children while you go to the gym, you might want to consider ways that you can work out as a family since exercise can also benefit your child’s mental health.
  • Thoughts about exercise – if you’re already feeling overwhelmed with difficult emotions, it can be really hard to force yourself to work out. It may be helpful to treat your exercise regimen as though it were medicine. People don’t like to take pills, but they do so because they believe the pills will make them feel better. Exercise is the same way. If you can push yourself to do it, you will feel better later.
  • Find ways to enjoy exercise – if you’re trying to force yourself to do an activity you hate, it’s going to be difficult to stick with it. Instead, try to pick activities you like and will look forward to. Try listening to music or watching your favorite show while you exercise, and reward yourself after you complete certain fitness goals.

What Counts as Exercise?

If you don’t think you could possibly enjoy anything called “exercise,” it might be time to broaden your definition. Exercise can include a broad range of activities, such as walking, swimming, gardening, dancing, cycling, and yoga. 

At Palms Behavioral Health, we have an indoor gym and include physical activity and exercise in our daily programming. This is just one of the many ways that we help our patients work toward their best possible mental health outcomes.

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