Each year, millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental illness. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which aims to fight stigma, provide support, educate the public, and advocate for policies that support people with mental illness and their families. The numbers are sobering and were exacerbated by the isolation, uncertainty, and upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to statistics compiled by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 U.S. adults has experienced a mental illness. That number jumps to one in three in young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. Treatment for mental health disorders often includes medication and talk therapy, but years of research show exercise can be one of the most effective ways of managing these types of illnesses.
While researchers are just beginning to figure out how exercise acts on the brain to improve mental health, they’re finding that moving has profound effects on brain structure itself. Here are just a few ways physical activity can improve your mental well-being:
It boosts mood almost immediately. It’s not always easy to get going when your mental health impacts your motivation, but studies show that’s when you need it the most. Exercise kicks up endorphin levels. Those “feel good” chemicals are what produce feelings of happiness and euphoria, which is why experts say exercise can be a vital supplement to treatments like medication and therapy.
It increases self-esteem and self-acceptance. Whether it’s improving endurance, losing weight, or building strength, working out regularly gives people a clear sense of progress. The feelings of accomplishment that come with making noticeable gains can help offset some of the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
It can build community. For many, mental health issues come with symptoms like social withdrawal and an inability to experience pleasure. Exercising, especially as part of a group, can boost mood and introduce people to a system of support that enriches their lives.
It can condition us to better tolerate discomfort. Studies have found that people with anxiety disorders show a reduced ability to manage mental discomfort. Researchers say the physical stress of regular exercise can help increase tolerance to internal stress, which can lead to better management of these types of illnesses.
It literally creates new brain cells. That process, called neurogenesis, improves overall brain performance by strengthening the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning. Since the hippocampus tends to be distorted in people with certain mental health conditions, researchers believe boosting brain cells through exercise can help manage those disorders.
Every Little Bit Helps
A report published just last month in JAMA Psychiatry found that even small doses of exercise may substantially lower the risk of depression. Adults who did 1.25 hours of brisk physical activity per week had an 18% lower risk of depression compared with those who didn’t exercise at all. That number jumped to 25% when people increased their physical activity to 2.5 hours a week. Researchers concluded that people should be encouraged to move to improve their mental health.
Millions of Americans will experience a mental health disorder during their lifetime, but everyone faces challenges in life that can impact their mental health. At Healthworks, we’re here for you with space and services to rejuvenate your mind and soul and want to encourage you to move for your mental health. It may be the best thing we can do for your well-being.
If you or someone you know has a mental illness, is struggling emotionally, or has concerns about their mental health, there are ways to get help. Click here for resources to find help for you, a friend, or a family member.