The Benefits of Physical Activity for Mental and Physical Health
Exercise does many things to our bodies. It leans, tones, and strengthens muscles, helps to expand our lungs, increases our endurance, and helps us sleep better. It’s hard to see an end to the benefits to our physical health. But did you know physical activity can affect our mental health as well?
In fact, walking just 3-5 hours a week can help combat depression, anxiety, ADHD, and PTSD by engaging the brain. It will also help fight off heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer by affecting us on a biological level.
While the benefits of exercise are innumerable, they won’t do us any good if we don’t keep at it. If you’re struggling to keep up with your exercise routine, one of the best tools for you is encouragement.
Words of encouragement from yourself, others, from apps or from quotes, help to cultivate a more positive perspective on engaging in exercise, so you can reap the benefits of exercise for years to come.
How Does Exercise Improve Physical Health?
Your physical health isn’t just about the size of your muscles, your endurance, and your speed and agility. It’s about you, on a biological level.
Physical exercise affects every bit of you. Your lungs expand, your hormones balance, your gut regulates acid better, blood flows through your veins more readily.
Beyond that, there is exciting new health research indicating that exercise can help ward off heart disease and diabetes, and even reduce your risk of 13 types of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute.
Lower cancer risks are likely due to exercise’s ability to lower insulin and estrogen levels, which have been linked to the growth factors of certain cancers. Exercise also reduces inflammation, improves your immune system, affects your metabolism and reduces toxins in your gastrointestinal tract. This just makes cancer awareness events like Race For The Cure all the more beneficial.
What Are Endorphins?
Taking all of the above into account, it’s amazing to think of all the physical benefits we gain from working out. And yet, our minds also benefit from exercise. When we exercise our brain releases endorphins, which we feel physically as well as mentally.
Endorphins are neurotransmitters. In simpler terms, they’re a brain chemical that helps transmit signals to your nervous system. They are activated when your body experiences stress or pain, and they act to reduce those sensations. In fact, endorphins are known as natural painkillers because they activate your brain’s opioid receptors.
Endorphins are often the cause of those good feelings you have after a workout, that general sense of calm you have by the end of your shower. They’re also responsible for the notorious “runner’s high”. They can help you concentrate and stimulate brain cell growth, which could help with age-related decline and brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s.
For many people, the happiness created by endorphins is the most easily felt benefit of exercise.
How Does Exercise Help Mental Health?
Aside from the release of endorphins, which can temporarily make you happier and reduce the impact of stress and pain, there are many other mental health benefits to physical activity.
Studies show that, in some cases, exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants. It can also make it easier to concentrate and relax. With that in mind, exercise is an excellent coping mechanism for mental illness and other mental health issues. It can improve our ability to cope with everyday life.
It’s estimated that 17% of the US population will experience a depressive episode in their life, while 9.5% may experience long term depression. Fortunately, physical exercise can help combat this.
Because of the release of neurotransmitters such as endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine, your brain can better cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. Since you will feel the impact of those issues less, you’ll be less likely to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. The use and abuse of these substances during a depressive episode can further imbalance the chemicals in your brain and make things even worse.
Over time, neural connections are formed in your brain by exercise. These help to improve the function of your brain and help you feel better overall, allowing you to retain these benefits even when you’re not as active.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), there are approximately 40 million Americans suffering from some form of anxiety. But exercise can have an effect on this too, even in doses as small as five minutes of walking.
One of the largest contributors to exercise’s effect on anxiety disorders is the release of norepinephrine. This brain chemical helps to moderate your brain’s response to stress and anxiety.
ADHD is often characterized by poor focus, lack of memory, mood swings, and irritability. Exercise can reduce these symptoms by getting rid of the excess energy in the body as well as in the brain. It also keeps the neurons from firing too quickly.
Exercise creates an immediate boost in dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain. In fact, the release of these specific chemicals is similar to the way Ritalin and Adderall work, making exercise a perfect natural alternative for many ADHD sufferers.
There are several difficulties for people with PTSD who would like to use exercise to relieve their symptoms. Like depression (which is also a symptom for this disorder), PTSD may cause you to withdraw or isolate yourself since being in crowds may trigger symptoms.
It also decreases motivation and impacts your sleep and energy levels, meaning you’re less likely to exercise. PTSD sufferers may also experience “bodily arousal” characterized by difficulty breathing, a racing heart, and other signs of high alert. This can then further trigger PTSD symptoms if it’s not brought under control quickly enough.
Despite these challenges, exercise is known to reducing PTSD symptoms in the long term. It can also help those diagnosed with this disorder to sleep better and make them feel better overall.
How Can I Achieve Results?
Regular exercise can affect your biological, physical, and mental health, but this can only happen with regularity.
To achieve results, start with something small. This may mean just stretching in the morning or before bed, or taking a walk during your lunch break. Progress to the treadmill for a run, or get into a class at your local gym with encouraging people.
Being around people who are in the same stage as you, or who mentally get you excited, or who hold you accountable, is a great way to keep you going. Find an app that sends you inspirational or motivational quotes every day.
Make all of this a part of your everyday routine. When exercise becomes a daily habit, you are more likely to do it without even thinking about it. You won’t have to motivate yourself to go, and it will no longer feel like a chore. Hold onto your water bottle, because you’re about to reap all the physical and mental benefits of a good workout.