Exercise and Mental Health

By Julienne McCulloch

Stress and anxiety, even though a normal part of daily life, are the most common psychiatric illnesses in the U.S. The benefits of exercise go beyond physical benefits and also include mental benefits.​​​​

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​Most individuals, who are at high risk for chronic diseases, are dealing with these diseases due to sedentary lifestyle and medication side effects. Exercise is also very important in patients with schizophrenia due to weight gain associated with antipsychotic drugs as well as their increased risk of obesity. Those struggling with physical ailments and chronic disease, have an increased risk of mental illness as well. The mind can’t function unless the body is working properly but the state of mind can also affect the body.

How does exercise effect mental health?

There are many different ways in which exercise impacts the brain. Research shows numerous ways in which exercise can help have a positive impact on mental illness and well-being. These impacts elevate the mood while decreasing the effects of stress, anxiety, and depression.
How are mental illness and activity levels related?
The less activity acquired, the more likely one is to suffer from low mood/depression and tension or worry. Decreased activity levels can also lead to decreased focus and concentration, decreased energy levels, lower self-esteem, and decreased capability of coping. This works in a negative cycle.

The Depression/Activity Cycle:

The opposite is true for increased activity levels. For those that keep active, they are less likely to have depression, anxiety and tension. They have increased self-esteem, they tend to sleep better which increases energy, they are able to concentrate and focus better, and are able to cope in a healthier manner. All of these are helpful in dealing with stress specifically when stress has depleted energy and ability to focus. Activity can then turn into a positive cycle.



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How much exercise is needed?

Some studies have shown that about 5 minutes of exercise can begin to create anti-anxiety effects. The recommended amount of exercise is at least 3 days a week for 30 minutes at a moderate intensity. The 30 minutes can be divided into 10 minutes segments. This should be cardio exercise which includes a repetitive activity that uses the large muscles of the body and sustains an increased heart rate throughout the duration of the activity. Examples would be swimming, biking, rowing machines, the elliptical, running, jogging, walking, aerobics, mowing the lawn, etc.

How to get started?

Areas to address when beginning a program:
  • Do you prefer to workout individually or with a partner or group of people?
  • Do you prefer outdoor or indoor activities?
  • Where will you exercise?
  • What is your availability to join a gym, purchase small or large home exercise equipment, or use resources that are already available to you?
  • How much time do you have each day to dedicate to exercise?
  • How many days a week do you plan on exercising?
  • Is there anyone that can help support you and keep you accountable?
Tips to help with success:
  • Be practical
  • Set small and attainable goals
  • Choose an activity that you will enjoy and that is easy access
  • Make time
  • Make it a habit and a lifestyle
  • Be prepared for barriers and setbacks and have a plan to overcome them
  • Give yourself small rewards when goals are met
When starting an exercise program, begin slowly and progress slowly to decrease the chances of injury and to increase adherence to the program. Even though exercise can’t cure or negate all symptoms related to mental illness, the benefits associated exercise can be an additional, or at times alternative, treatment option.