Exercise: Why it is Important for Mental Health

Exercise: Why it is Important for Mental Health
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People often seek mental health counseling because they are feeling depressed, anxious, overly stressed, or “overly emotional.” Sometimes they want to talk about their problems and sometimes they want to learn new skills to help them cope. Often it is a combination of both. Psychotherapy affects brain structure and changes the way people think and feel, which can lead to behavior change. Changing behavior also causes changes in brain structure, which can also lead to changes in how someone thinks and feels. So, it has a bidirectional effect.

Although it is becoming more common knowledge, most people do not think about or consider exercise as a strategy to help improve or maintain their mental health. How much we are moving our body is extremely important though. Changing the way you are exercising, or maybe starting to exercise is a change in behavior, which can lead to a change in your brain structure and lead to a change in how you are thinking and feeling. 

Movement is an evolutionary need for us as humans. We spent about 5 million years as hunter-gatherers and walked an average of 5-10 miles a day. We are made to move and our modern-day lifestyle is very sedentary compared to our past. Exercise is a form of voluntary stress and activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. When we exercise we get a release of neurotransmitters, which helps up feel happy, energized, and focused. Specifically, we get a release of beta-endorphins (which provides a euphoric feeling), serotonin (which helps with sustained happiness and mood, regulates hunger, body temperature, and sexual desire), dopamine (which helps with body movement, memory, and activates our reward center) and norepinephrine (which helps break down glucose and gets more energy to the brain and body, plus it improves attention and focus). Exercise specifically increases these neurotransmitters in our frontal cortex which helps with executive functioning (time management, organization, task initiation, motivation, emotional regulation, meta-cognition, etc.) and is very helpful for individuals with ADHD. But let’s be honest, most of us need help in this category. 

Exercise also helps to improve sleep quality and normalizes circadian rhythms. It increases slow wave sleep, which is deep sleep and where our brain and body restores. Exercise also helps to decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and the amount of time spent in non-restorative sleep. A single night of sleep deprivation can cause an increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines (PICs), which causes inflammation in the brain and body. By exercising we can sleep better, which prevents PICs from increasing, but while we exercise we also increase myokines, which are anti-inflammatory cytokines that help to reduce inflammation in the brain and body. Having less inflammation in our brain and body reduces our chances for mental health problems (depression, anxiety, etc), chronic pain, metabolic disorders (obesity and diabetes), cardiovascular issues (high blood pressure, heart attack, etc.), fibromyalgia, and neurological disorders (dementia and Alzheimer’s).

For most people, they need to start moving their body more, but there are some people who exercise too much and do not let their body recover. The latter can cause systemic issues as well and lead to inflammation. So, if you fit into the category of over-exercising, it would be beneficial to give yourself more rest days. It is ok to take some time off from exercising. If you fall into the former category and need to start moving more, start with a realistic goal. For mood regulation, you want to lean towards aerobic exercise like walking, jogging, HIIT, compound exercises (squats, lunge with bicep burl, bent over row), or alternating weight lifting exercises so there is little rest time in between sets. The goal is sustaining this aerobic exercise for 30 minutes, 3-4x a week. For some, it may be best to start with 10-minute periods of exercise 3x a day to get in the 30 minutes. Typically, we want to aim for 10,000 steps a day because this equates to about 5 miles, which is evolutionary our minimum for movement each day. If you want to increase overall energy, you want to exercise for 60-120 minutes, 3-4x a week.

To read more or learn more about what I do go to www.essenceholistichealth.com

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