How Exercise Can Benefit Mental Health
In this blog post we’re going to talk about Jake. Jake is a sophomore in high school. Jake sometimes gets overwhelmed between his schooling, the soccer team, the drama club, navigating his high school social life, his family and his part time job. Not to mention how every day Jake feels a spectrum of emotions that he is trying to process.
One thing Jake can use to help manage his mental health is movement and exercise, which we’ll discuss here. Specifically, we will talk about:
- Why movement and exercise helps
- When exercise is NOT enough
- How to get started
Why Exercise is Beneficial
Exercise can be a wonderful tool for mental health. Jake already knows this a little bit. He has intuited it from his personal experiences. Thanks to these keen powers of observation he has noticed that he oftens feels good after soccer practice. When he goes for a bike ride on weekends, it tends to calm him down especially if he is stressed. He even notices it affects his parents. If he wants to play an extra hour of Fortnite or borrow money, he has a better shot of a “Yes” if mom has just finished with the elliptical.
Well when Jake (and everyone else) moves a couple things happen. In his brain, hormones and other chemical messengers called neurotransmitters are being released. You might have heard of some of them before: dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and others. When we move (especially for an extended period, like on a run or playing a sport) these chemical messengers are released and help put us in a good mood!
Now these help us elevate our spirits temporarily, but what about over the long term? There is good news on that front as well! When we make movement and exercise a regular habit it helps and protects our mental health. In a research paper from 2018, the authors concluded that “Active adolescents had significantly lower odds of mood disorder…, bipolar II disorder…, and general psychological distress… than less/inactive adolescents” (He et al., 2018).
Movement and exercise also helps Jake manage stress. When Jake is anxious enough about something, his body goes into “fight or flight” mode- it is reacting as though it detects a threat. In this mode the body is prepared to:
Defend itself (fight)
To run from a threat (flight)
Please notice that BOTH of those options involve MOVEMENT.
The body prepares for stress by getting ready for movement. This stems from how back in the day (the way long ago day) our threats were things that were generally life threatening. In modern times however, while our stressors don’t always threaten our life, the body’s response remains the same. And so the flight or flight response is still how we react. Therefore, if the body is reacting by preparing for movement- we can help ourselves by moving our bodies, thus giving it what it was prepared to do!
Let’s say Jake is nervous about an upcoming homework assignment. As the due date gets closer and closer he starts to get more and more anxious. When he thinks about it his heart starts to beat faster, he feels antsy, he focuses intensely on it- His body is perceiving his homework as a threat and it is preparing him for fight or flight!
Now obviously Jake is not going to fight his homework (he would look RIDICULOUS if he punched his computer like this guy):
He also isn’t going to run away (he would look equally as ridiculous) because neither of those options will lead to a completed assignment. But what Jake can do is MOVE before he starts it. This will help to calm the stress response and manage the fight or flight. It might not totally eliminate it, but the goal here is to bring it to a point where Jake can manage his nerves and do the assignment.
When NOT to Use Exercise
I love movement. And I believe strongly in its many benefits. But as both an exercise professional and a mental health professional I can tell you that there are times when exercise is just not enough
For example, maybe Jake feels sad all the time. Or he is still really anxious all the time, even with all the movement he does. Or maybe something happened to Jake, like he got bullied at school and is having trouble dealing with it.
Exercise can certainly help with mood, manage stress, and provide an outlet, but it has its limitations. It absolutely does not replace talking to a professional. If you feel constantly sad, anxious, overwhelmed or if something has happened to you, speak to a qualified adult (parent, family member, teacher, school counselor, etc) about the situation.
Exercise is just one tool in the mental health toolbox and like all tools it is meant to be used for certain situations. If you use a screwdriver to try and hammer a nail, it is not going to go so well. The same goes for using a mental health professional when the time is right.
Tips on Getting Started with Movement Exercise
Below I have listed several items to help get you started on your exercise journey, or accompany whatever you are already doing.
- Start with an activity you enjoy. the more you enjoy something the more you are likely to do it. As movement is first and foremost about building a habit, I recommended picking something you can see yourself doing regularly.
- Every so often, try something new. You’ll never know what else you might enjoy if you don’t try it! Once you have found things you like you can add variety to your activity repertoire. Plus, learning something new is also good for our brains as it helps stimulate them!
- Too much of a good thing isn’t great and exercise is no exception. As with many things in life, balance is key. You can absolutely over-exercise. Make sure you take rest days, especially if you are working out very frequently.
- Warm up before every workout. Warming up primes the body for movement and helps prevent injury. Optimally the warm up will include similar movements to what you will be doing during the workout just at a lower intensity.
- Try to include both cardiovascular exercise and resistance exercise during your week. There are different benefits to performing activities and movements that work our heart and lungs (cardiovascular) and those that work out muscles (legs, arms, chest, etc). They both are beneficial so including them both in your week is ideal!
Here Are Some Suggestions:
- Walking (at a pace that you can still talk but it is somewhat difficult)
- Bodyweight Exercises
- Resistance Bands
- Dumbells, Kettlebells, barbells
- Anything that’s heavy you can lift (load up a backpack with books)
Monday: Walk/Run/Bike for 30 minutes
Tuesday: Full Body Workout | 3 sets of 12-20 reps each:
- Bodyweight Rows
- Plank Taps
Wednesday: Walk/ Run/ Bike for 30 min
Friday: Active Fun Day! Aim for 30-60 mines of a new activity
- Rock Climbing
Saturday: Full Body Circuit | Perform 3 sets of 12 reps of each on after the other:
- Push Ups
- Bodyweight Rows
- Plank Taps
All in all, movement and exercise is great for us in so many ways. From physical health to mental health its advantages are many. For mental health, it can help us regulate our emotions by increasing those chemical messengers that help us feel good. It also can help manage our stress and the fight or flight response. There are however, some problems that it can’t help with and for those we want to talk to a trusted adult or mental health professional about. Who knows – they might even suggest to use movement as well! Here’s hoping.
About the Author
He JP, Paksarian D, Merikangas KR. Physical Activity and Mental Disorder Among Adolescents in the United States. J Adolesc Health. 2018;63(5):628‐635. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2018.05.030
Heijnen, S., Hommel, B., Kibele, A., & Colzato, L. S. (2016). Neuromodulation of Aerobic Exercise-A Review. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1890. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01890
Physical Activity for Cognitive and Mental Health in Youth: A Systematic Review of Mechanisms
David Lubans, Justin Richards, Charles Hillman, Guy Faulkner, Mark Beauchamp, Michael Nilsson, Paul Kelly, Jordan Smith, Lauren Raine, Stuart Biddle
Pediatrics Sep 2016, 138 (3) e20161642; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-1642
Sapolsky, Robert M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. New York :Owl Book/Henry Holt and Co.