In an age where pharmaceutical drugs dominate television advertisements (the average US television viewer sees nine pharmaceutical ads per day (C. Lee Ventola, 2011)), it’s not surprising that the overwhelming majority of the population are looking for quick fixes to often complex problems. After all, there’s a pill for almost anything these days. But one of the most time-tested and effective mental health boosters is completely under-utilized and under-prescribed – exercise.
The Connection Between Exercise and Mental Health
Do a simple Pubmed search on the link between exercise and mental health, and you’ll find more relevant articles than you can count. Coincidence? No way. Researchers as far back as the 1930’s identified strong relationships between amounts and types of physical exercise used in treatments, and the positive mental effects they had on those patients (Davis, 1930). Since then, countless studies have been performed, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. A comprehensive study from 1985 found that “physical activity and exercise probably alleviate some symptoms associated with mild to moderate depression. The evidence also suggests that physical activity and exercise might provide a beneficial adjunct for alcoholism and substance abuse programs; improve self-image, social skills, and cognitive functioning; reduce the symptoms of anxiety…” (Taylor, 1985). These benefits are known worldwide as well, with groups such as Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA) stating that “Exercise appears most effective for depressive disorders and may also improve mental well-being and physical health in individuals with serious mental disorders” (Morgan, 2013); while a Chinese study from 1997 on college and middle-school students found that “physical exercises were helpful to reduce students’ tension, anger, fatigue, depression and confusion, and improve their vigor and self-esteem” (Biyan, 1997) . These are just a few of what are thousands of reports of the positive effects of physical exercise on mental health. The relationship is not limited by nationality, age or time-period – it’s abundantly clear that physical exercise boosts mental health.
So why, with all the knowledge we have on this physical-mental link, do we still first reach for the anti-depressant pills, and not our running shoes? The answers are beyond the scope of this article, but most certainly include the billions of dollars of annual advertising spent by Big Pharma; our ever-increasing need for instant gratification; and (perhaps most unfortunately), our ever-increasing lethargy underpinned by our growing worldwide obesity rates. So, where to from here?
The first step towards using exercise as an adjunct to an overall healthy mental state is to acknowledge that there is a clear link between exercise and mental health, and that you are responsible for self-medicating with the powerful drug of movement. At its’ most basic level – getting up and moving around will give you a more positive outlook on life, and moderate some symptoms of depression, anxiety, addiction and cognitive impairment. So, just get up and move.
Taking this to another level, if you want to make a significant and lasting change by using exercise to improve your mental health, there are countless websites dedicated to helping individuals improve their physical health. Many of these are free, and provide detailed workouts, meal plans, tracking tools and guidance to help you stay on track.
Here are some quick and easy recommendations to get you started:
No matter how busy you are, there are quick and easy ways you can get more movement in to your daily routine. Set a timer every hour to get out of your chair and walk around the office or your home. Try parking another hundred yards from your workplace or the store. Walk your children to school if time and distance permits. Get a pedometer or activity tracker and try to reach a goal of 10,000 steps per day. If your fitness level is low, don’t get hung up on numbers – just try to move around more!
Resistance training is one of the most beneficial physical exercises a human being can do – particularly one that utilizes multiple muscle groups and body parts. When most people think of weight training, they picture powerlifters or bodybuilders moving huge weights around a gym, but in reality, any resistance to your body can make a positive impact on not only your mental health, but your physical health as well. For beginners, air squats, push-ups against a wall and lying leg lifts might be enough to get excellent results. For the more physically-experienced, a weight-training regimen of three to five days per week alternating muscle groups will be more effective.
Join a Class
One of the best ways to continue with physical exercise is to be accountable to a group – whether at a gym, social club or even with work or family members. A great way to achieve this is to join an organized fitness class – it could be aerobics, swim, senior fitness, CrossFit or anything in between. The important thing here is that you get some level of physical exertion.
What to Expect
In the world of instant gratification that we seem to be a part of, it’s unrealistic to expect that walking a few minutes a day will alleviate all your mental health concerns. In that same vain, please don’t take this article as a prescription to drop your medication, counseling, dieting or other treatments and just do some form of physical exercise. What we’re encouraging here, is adding some level of physical exertion to your daily routine as a supplement to your treatments. The goal is most certainly to be symptom and treatment-free, but don’t expect exercise to be your cure-all. Here are some things you can expect, and in a fairly short period of time:
– Improved mental clarity
– Higher self-esteem levels
– Improved cardiovascular capacity
– More restful sleep at night
– Lower anxiety levels
– A better sense of purpose
These should be the goals of anyone looking to improve their mental health, and with decades of published research on the topic, it seems to be a no-brainer that you should incorporate some physical exercise in your daily routine.
James Anthony is the manager of Protein King – an online fitness, health, supplement and apparel store dedicated to improving the lives of everyday people. Based in Australia, James writes extensively on the topics of diet, nutrition, sports supplements and fitness, and in his time working with Protein King, has been rewarded with many inspiring stories of change and empowerment.
Biyan et al. (1997). The Mental Health of College and Middle-School Students in Shanghai And Its Relationship With Physical Exercises. Psychological Science, 1.
- Lee Ventola, M. (2011, Oct). Direct-to-Consumer Pharmaceutical Advertising: Therapeutic or Toxic? Pharmacy and Therapeutics, 36(10), 669-674; 681-684.
Davis, J. E. (1930, August). Mental Health Objectives in Physical Education. Occupational Therapy & Rehabilitation, 9(4), 231-238.
Morgan et al. (2013, August). Exercise and Mental Health: An Exercise and Sports Science Australia Commissioned Review. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, 16(4), 64-73.
Taylor et al. (1985, March-April). The Relation of Physical Activity and Exercise to Mental Health. Public Health Reports, 195-202.