It’s time to move! Why physical activity is good for your mental health
If you find yourself struggling with anxiety or depression you may be thinking “the last thing I want to do is exercise!” But let me encourage you by saying that even though your motivation for exercise might be low right now, once you start moving, exercise will have a huge impact on relieving some of the symptoms you experience as a result of depression and anxiety.
It is well known that physical activity can help prevent and improve a number of health problems including high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. Research has shown that even small amounts of physical activity can improve the mood of people with serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, major depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.
How does physical activity improve my mental health?
Exercise has many physical, psychological and emotional benefits. Physically exercise can help increase hormones in your body that are responsible for those “feel good emotions” such as endorphins and decrease your stress hormones such as cortical steroids. Exercise has been shown to boost energy and reduce fatigue and increase your ability to concentrate and help you sleep better at night.
Emotionally, participating in regular exercise can help you accomplish goals and give you a sense of self-confidence. Setting an exercise goal to challenge yourself can make you feel like you have accomplished something important (i.e., walking a 5-km race for a charity of your choice). In addition to boosting self-confidence exercising regularly can also make you feel better about your physical appearance.
Exercise also provides an excellent distraction from your daily worries and can provide you with some personal time away from the negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression. Exercising with a friend or joining a gym is an excellent way to distract yourself from your present worries. When we meet new people and form new relationships we can often find the social support we need for dealing with our daily struggles with mental illness.
What kind of physical activity should I be doing?
Physical exercise is defined as any bodily activity that enhances or maintains physical fitness and overall health and wellness. It is performed for various reasons. These include strengthening muscles and the cardiovascular system, developing athletic skills, weight loss or maintenance and for enjoyment. There is a wide range of activities that could fall under this definition of physical exercise that can help you feel better. For example, activities such as running, brisk walking, lifting weights, playing sports and swimming. Activities that get your heart pumping and cause you to breathe more rapidly are great activities to choose. But other activities that fall under the “physical activity” umbrella are gardening, washing your car, or playing with your children. Anything that gets you off the couch and moving is activity that can help improve your mood.
How do I fit physical activity into my daily routine?
Begin with small goals. If you haven’t participated in regular exercise for a long time you want to start slowly so that you don’t hurt yourself. For example, you could begin by walking around your neighborhood for 10 minutes, 3 times a week for the first week. Then progress to 15 minutes, 3 times the second week, 20 minutes, 3 times the third week to 30 minutes 3 times the fourth week and eventually to 30 minutes 4 times a week the fifth week and 30 minutes, 5 times a week the sixth week.
You don’t have to do all your exercise at once, either. Broaden how you think of exercise and find ways to fit activity into your routine. Add small amounts of physical activity throughout your day. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator at work. Park a little farther away at the grocery store to fit in a short walk or get off your bus a stop or two early. Or, if you live close to your job, consider biking or walking to work.
How much physical activity is enough?
According to Health Canada’s Physical Activity Guide Canadians between the ages of 18-64 should be active at least 2.5 hours a week to achieve health benefits. Broken down, this means 30 minutes of exercise (or more) on at least 5 days of the week. These activities should be focused on moderate to vigorous aerobic activity (e.g., brisk walking, running, swimming, biking) throughout each week. It is also important to include exercises that increase your bone and muscle strength at least two days per week (e.g., yoga, lifting weights). Any amount of physical activity will do you some good. Smaller amounts of activity — as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time — can make a difference. It may take less time exercising to improve your mood when you do more-vigorous activities such as running or bicycling.
How do I get started — and stay motivated?
Starting and sticking with an exercise routine can be a challenge. Here are some steps that can help. Always check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program to make sure it’s safe for you.
Make sure you enjoy what you are doing. Figure out what type of physical activities you’re like the most and what you are more likely to do. Then think about when and how you’ll fit it into your schedule. For example, would you be more likely to do some gardening in the evening or go for a jog in the morning? Go for a bike ride or play basketball with your children after school? Or sign up for a new yoga class or take dance lessons with your spouse? It is very important to do physical activity that you enjoy to help you stick with it.
Set SMART goals. Your immediate goal doesn’t have to be hiking up Mt. Kilimanjaro by the end of the summer. Think about what you want to achieve and make sure your goal is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-sensitive. Tailor your plan to your own needs and abilities rather than trying to meet unrealistic guidelines that you’re unlikely to meet.
Address your barriers. Figure out what’s stopping you from getting off the couch and out the door. If you feel self-conscious about your body, you may want to purchase some exercise equipment and workout at home. If you enjoy socializing while exercising, phone a friend to work out with or join a gym where other people will be. If you don’t have money to spend on exercise gear, do something that’s virtually cost-free, such as walking in your neighborhood. If you think about what’s stopping you from exercising, you can probably find an alternative solution.
Prepare for setbacks and obstacles. Give yourself credit for every step in the right direction, no matter how small. If you skip exercise one day, that doesn’t mean you can’t maintain an exercise routine. If the weather is bad one week or you go on vacation and miss out on your scheduled exercise sessions just keep going when the weather clears up or when you return home. It never hurts to try again the next day.
Final tips for starting your physical activity program
What should I wear? It is best to wear a loose fitting, comfortable t-shirt and shorts/pants for every exercise session. Sweaters/coats may be appropriate as the cool weather approaches. It is very important to wear comfortable shoes! A MP3 player/IPOD can be a helpful distraction too so that you can listen to music during your exercise sessions.
What should I eat or drink before, during and after exercise? About two to three hours before your exercise session, try to drink plenty of fluids and eat a balanced meal. This will help to boost your energy levels, prevent hunger, and increase body fluid levels. During exercise you can get very tired from cramping muscles. To prevent muscle cramping, try to drink every 15 minutes during exercise. Once your exercise session is finished, your body is ready to store energy again, repair muscles and fill up with fluids. Whatever your food choices for exercise recovery make sure they are balanced and the timing is critical – eat as soon as possible after physical activities!
Should I stretch before and after the exercise session? YES! You will likely feel some muscle soreness for the first few weeks after your first exercise session. This is completely normal and should be happening! It means that the exercises are doing their jobs! To reduce muscle soreness STRETCH before and after exercise and target major muscle groups. When you’re stretching, focus on your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds. It takes time to lengthen tissues safely. Hold your stretches for at least 30 seconds — and up to 60 seconds for a really tight muscle or problem area. That can seem like a long time, so keep an eye on the clock or your watch. Then repeat the stretch on the other side. For most muscle groups, a single stretch is often enough if you hold it long enough.
Physical activity is a great way to start your day. I hope you have found this information helpful as you begin your journey to a new you!
Heather Strong, Ph.D.