Muscling Up On Mental Health

May 3, 2023

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re sharing this great article from The Haven New England on how exercise can help improve your mental health!


The Relationship Between Exercise and Mental Health

Any discussion about mental health must begin with the brain. A person’s state of mind, or psyche, gets influenced by the delicate interplay of neurotransmitter chemicals that control their brain’s function. These neurochemicals—such as norepinephrine, oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins—heavily influence a person’s response to the stresses in their internal and external environments.

The pharmaceutical medications prescribed to help people with mental disorders such as depression and anxiety act on these neurotransmitters to help normalize and regulate a person’s mood. However, exercise alone can have just as significant of an effect on the brain’s neurotransmitters without some of the downsides of taking a daily medication. Researchers have even gone so far as to predict that because of the way that exercise enhances brain fitness, it may play a specific role in treating mental health conditions in the future.

The Mental Health Benefits of Going to the Gym

Walking into a local gym can be intimidating. However, getting started is typically the most challenging part of any gym routine. For motivation, here are ten ways that going to the gym can help with mental health.

1. Exercise Can Dramatically Boost One’s Mood

Hitting the treadmill at the gym can help a person achieve a state of calmness and relaxation that has sometimes been called a “runner’s high.” That is because, according to experts at John Hopkins Medicine, running and other forms of physical exercise flood the brain with endocannabinoids. These naturally produced chemicals can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause reduced anxiety and increased feelings of calm.

2. Exercise Can Help with Depression

For people who suffer from major depression, going to the gym can help objectively improve their symptoms. Experts at Harvard Medical School note that exercise for depression may be just as effective as antidepressant medications in some instances. These experts cite studies showing that in depressed people, certain areas of the brain (such as the hippocampus) are smaller; however, they can get enlarged through regular physical activity. Even better, exercise can exert these positive benefits without the potential for negative side effects.

3. Exercise Can Help with Anxiety

Much like its positive impact on the symptoms of major depression, going to the gym can also help with symptoms of anxiety. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (AADA), exercise is sometimes used as prescription for anxiety, with one intense exercise session serving to reduce anxiety symptoms for an hour. A more long-term effect has been observed in people who exercise regularly.

4. Exercise Can Improve Sleep

When a person gets regular physical activity, it can improve their sleep. According to the Sleep Foundation, exercise can not only reduce the time it takes a person to fall asleep, but it can also improve the quality of that sleep. This improvement in sleep can help with mental health conditions because chronic sleep deprivation and sleep loss are associated with higher mental health disorders.

5. Exercise Can Improve Bowel Function

Getting regular physical exercise can help keep a person’s bowel habits more regular, which can, in turn, have a positive benefit on the individual’s mental health. Researchers have specifically studied the impact of a 12-week exercise program on people who get hospitalized for mental illness, finding that it can increase intestinal motility (the movement of the bowels). That is important because research shows that the prevalence of mental health conditions is much higher in people with constipation than in the general population.

6. Exercise Can Be a Motivator for Change

When a person commits to a gym routine and succeeds in sticking to their predetermined schedule, they may begin to see positive impacts in their life outside of the gym, too. Exercise can be a significant motivator for change because it can provide a healthy foundation for daily self-management, self-commitment, and self-improvement. All of these positive benefits can translate to an improvement in a person’s mental health condition.

7. Going to the Gym Can Increase Social Connections

Going to the gym can help people form positive social relationships. Some research has shown that physical activity can improve the way that people interact with one another, increasing the amount that people trust each other. Other research has shown that group exercise, in particular, can increase social bonding. When a person with a mental health condition feels that they are more rooted in their community, with more social connections, it can positively impact their mental health.

8. Going to the Gym Creates a Routine

Lacing up a pair of sneakers, filling a water bottle, and getting to the gym by 7 a.m. might sound grueling to some, but having a structured routine can help a great deal when it comes to managing a mental health condition. Structure makes an unpredictable world feel more manageable, particularly at the micro-level. That can be especially helpful when it comes to living with a mental health condition. Also, the familiarity of a gym routine can help a person with mental illness channel their depression and anxiety healthily, rather than turning to less healthy behaviors to cope, such as food, alcohol, or other substances.

9. Outdoor Gym Activities Can Improve Emotional States

Doing squats or leg lifts in the gym parking lot, where a person can readily see nature, may supercharge the positive impacts of exercise on mental health. Researchers note that exercising in the presence of nature (otherwise known as “green exercise”) can enhance a person’s outlook, improve their mood, and even reduce feelings of suicidal thinking or hopelessness.

10. Exercise Can Help with Weight Loss, Which Improves Mood

According to the CDC, when a person exercises, they are more likely to lose weight because they begin burning more calories. And, when people who are depressed lose weight, research has shown that they have an improvement in their mood and self-esteem. By going to the gym, people can positively benefit from many aspects of their health, from mental disorders to their cardiovascular and metabolic profiles.

The Connection Between Exercise, Mental Health, and Addiction

Mental health and addiction often get correlated, with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)—noting that 50 percent of people who struggle with a substance use disorder will also struggle with a co-occurring mental health condition at some point in their lifetime.

However, exercise has been studied independently as a potential treatment for substance abuse. In fact, according to experts at Harvard Medical School, exercise has shown promise in helping people recover from addiction, with some studies showing that regular swimming can reduce the amounts of opioids that opioid-addicted rats consume. In addition, exercise wheels have a similar effect on rats that are dependent on cocaine. In humans, research has shown that exercise programs may reduce substance use or even increase the likelihood of abstinence from substances.

Source: The Haven New England, “10 Ways Going to the Gym Can Help With Mental Health” 

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