When your mental health isn’t 100 percent, the effects can be exhausting. Never mind dragging yourself to the gym — even a Netflix binge session might require more energy than you’re able to give. But there’s a reason why expert self-care tips so often advise us to get up and moving. As it turns out, the exercise benefits for mental health are both preventative — as in, keeping future issues from flaring up — and therapeutic — as in, reducing existing symptoms.
A study published last year found that getting at least one hour of physical activity per week can help protect against future episodes of depression. According to researchers, mental health benefits are derived from the “social and physical health benefits of exercise,” and 12 percent of the cases of depression they encountered could have been prevented by that weekly activity target. These findings support an existing belief among medical professionals, based on previous research, that exercise is a valuable tool for supporting and improving mental health.
“Most experts support the hypothesis that exercise improves mental health as a result of increased circulation to the brain,” says neuroscientist and holistic wellness expert Leigh Winters. In an interview with Brit + Co, Winters explains the science behind the mental health-exercise connection.
“With more blood pumping through the brain, our physiological reaction to stress changes thanks to its interaction with a specific region, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis,” says Winters. “The HPA communicates with other parts of the brain, namely the limbic system, hippocampus, and amygdala, which play varying roles in mood, memory, fear, and motivation.” (All things we’d like to keep running smoothly, obvs.)
Winters says that researchers are still digging into why and how exercise affects the way we feel. “There isn’t consistent evidence showing that exercise increases endorphins, thereby improving one’s mood,” she says.
But lacing up your running shoes is still a proven way to help combat mood disorders. “There’s significant research demonstrating that regular exercise, like running, swimming, walking, and biking, reduces depression and anxiety,” says Winters.
“In my opinion, aerobic fitness is the most neglected intervention in mental healthcare.”
Winters points out that taking part in exercise can have additional psychological benefits too: Sticking to a fitness regime can make you more confident in your ability to achieve goals outside the gym. And depending on where you work out, you might also benefit from the social aspects of exercise. (If you can’t make it to the gym, grab your bestie and try out these partner YouTube workouts.)
While it’s exciting to know that movement can help tackle mental health issues, those living with depression might notice an inherent catch-22: The days when you need these exercise benefits most can be the toughest times to get started. We asked Winters for her top motivational tips to break the cycle.
1. Treat yo’ self. “Watching that Netflix show or having that special smoothie post-workout creates a really strong neurological habit loop,” says Winters. In other words, make sure your routine includes a consistent reward for your efforts — even something as simple as using your fave post-gym beauty products to look and feel your best.
2. Discover the smell of success. “Aromas like peppermint, eucalyptus, and lemon stimulate the central nervous system and are great for ‘waking up’ the body,” says Winters. (So that’s why we’re so hooked on those Equinox towels…) “Smelling these essential oils before and during working out associates these scents with effortful exercise and will help make the regimen stick.”
3. Pump up the jams. For many of us, music is key to a great workout. “Music is a great distraction that puts you in the “zone” and ups your effort,” says Winters. She adds, “If that’s not enough, good music is scientifically known to improve your mood.” Hey, who are we to argue with science?
4. Find what Winters calls your “workout tribe.” According to the wellness expert, “Putting yourself out there and engaging with others is better for workout motivation than money.” (Looking for the best workouts with friends? We’ve got you covered.) Even if you prefer to get your sweat on solo, Winters suggests seeking out virtual communities for support and accountability. “Get more social by pledging your commitment online with programs like stickk.com,” she says.
5. Do what’s right for you. “Dancing and walking are effective ways to get your blood pumping,” says Winters. “Exercise is a no judgment time. Honor your body and what you need. If you need to take your jog slower, do it. Doing something is better than doing nothing.” We couldn’t agree more.
Does exercise boost your mood? Tell us about it @BritandCo!
(Photo via Getty)