Imagine that there was a treatment that promised not only to help you feel better physically and emotionally, but to improve your memory and thinking ability, your energy level and your sleep quality, and as a “side effect” also helped you to lose weight and reduce your stress. Imagine that this treatment was easily available, and best of all, FREE – would you want to try it?
Most of us have learned to be skeptical of claims such as the above, thinking that if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. So where is the catch? What if you found out that this treatment took approximately 20-30 minutes each day, and that it may take 2-3 weeks to notice results? Still willing to try it? What if the treatment took some effort to complete (roughly the same effort it takes to go grocery shopping)? And what if you had to keep up the treatment for the rest of your life in order to maintain the benefits? Still interested?
This miracle treatment, of course, is physical exercise. If its numerous well-documented benefits were available from taking a pill, probably everyone would take one. In fact, many food supplements, herbs and vitamins are sold making similar claims, and people are often willing to spend a lot of money on those, even though their positive effects on physical and emotional well-being are not nearly as well established as the positive effects of exercise. So why are so many of us still reluctant to make a commitment to regular physical exercise? If it is not because of physical limitations, it is often because we make excuses for why we can’t find the time and the energy in our already busy lifestyles. After reading about all the benefits of exercise below, decide for yourself whether you can really afford NOT to try it. (Note: It’s always a good idea to check with your health care provider before starting a physical exercise program!)
The Mental Health Benefits of Physical Exercise Many people think of exercise as having mostly physical and health benefits, such as strong muscles, a strong heart, and weight loss. But a growing body of research shows that exercise also promotes mental health and well-being.
Positive Mood. Not only does physical exercise improve mood, it can significantly reduce depression, anxiety, and anger. Research on the relationship between exercise and depression has a long history, and has consistently shown that both short-term and long-term exercise is related to a significant reduction in depression. The findings suggest that the anti-depressant effects of exercise begin as early as the first session of exercise and continue beyond the end of the exercise program. Researchers at Duke University found that 60% of depressed people overcame their depression without medication after exercising for three 30-minute sessions per week for 4 months (this is about the same success rate found among depressed people who use only medication to treat their depression).
But you don’t have to spend hours at the gym to gain the benefits from exercise. Even short bursts of physical activity have been found to lift people’s mood, such as walking up several flights of stairs, or jogging to the mailbox and back. Exercise also has been found to significantly reduce anxiety. The most beneficial exercise for anxiety reduction appears to be aerobic (e.g., running, swimming, cycling) as opposed to nonaerobic (e.g., baseball, strength training). Research suggests that physical exercise promotes a sense of calmness similar to that obtained from relaxation training and meditation, with the added benefit of promoting better physical health. Yoga often has a calming effect on participants as well, along with the physical benefit of stretching and building strength.
Stress Reduction. Physically active people are better able to cope with the stress of daily life than sedentary people. Researchers are still trying to figure out exactly what happens to the brain during physical exercise and how that improves the body’s natural ability to handle stress. Studies have shown that exercise seems to have a beneficial impact on the immune system, helping people stay healthier and more resilient during stressful times.
Self-Esteem. Exercise increases confidence and can have a positive effect on self-esteem. One study found that children showed larger increases in self-esteem after engaging in aerobic activity as compared to other physical education class activities (such as learning sports skills). Another study found that senior citizens who practiced light stretching also increased their self-esteem.
Restful Sleep. Regular, quality sleep is related to better thinking ability, alertness, memory, and energy level. People who engage in rigorous exercise (walking, jogging, swimming, etc.) have been found to go to sleep more quickly, sleep longer, and have more restful sleep than people who do not exercise. Research suggests that exercise has the biggest impact on sleep when the exercise is longer in duration (30 minutes or more) and is completed earlier in the day.
Memory and Thinking Ability. There is evidence that exercise increases the blood supply to the brain. An increased blood supply means increased oxygen and energy, and thus better performance. The positive effects of aerobic exercise seem to be largest for “executive functions” – judgment, planning, and problem solving ability.
Studies have also found that physically active elderly people perform better than sedentary people on cognitive tasks such as memory, reaction time, reasoning, and vocabulary. When sedentary people were assigned to an exercise program that included both strength training and aerobic activity, they showed substantial improvement in cognitive abilities after only 3-6 months. However, that advantage was quickly lost when people stopped exercising.
In short, physical exercise can make you feel happier, calmer, more confident, more energetic, and better able to think and solve problems. Maybe, instead of saying no to exercise, say no to something else today and go for a 5-minute walk around the office or the neighborhood. Do it especially if you feel too tired to do it – remember that it will increase your energy and you will be glad you did it!
Dr. Karin Suesser, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with Aurora Medical Group in Oshkosh, Wisconsin ([http://www.drsuesser.com]). She provides therapy and assessment for children (ages 1-18) and their families, as well as for adults and couples. She specializes in helping individuals find effective solutions to emotional, behavioral, or life transition concerns. Her areas of expertise include anxiety issues, ADHD, aggressive and disruptive behaviors, depression, trauma and abuse issues, academic/career concerns, parenting issues, relationship and sexual issues. She also provides professional coaching to individuals to help them achieve their goals, enhance their performance, and live a more deeply meaningful life.