Whether you’ve been down in the dumps due to a relationship ending, have gotten into a funk during the shorter winter days, or even suffered clinical depression requiring medical attention, chances are that you’ve experienced depression in some form during your life. Maybe you’ve gone through such classic symptoms as not enjoying activities that you used to enjoy, changes in appetite, insomnia or difficulty getting out of bed, recurrent episodes of crying, or feeling completely devoid of emotion.
Or, perhaps you’ve experienced anxiety, whether this stems from work overload at the office or school, interpersonal tension, financial concerns, or an anxiety disorder. It could be that symptoms of anxiety such as difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts, trouble sleeping, trembling, headache, or a nervous stomach are all too familiar to you.
You are certainly not alone. Since life will always contain challenges, we’re bound to have some bouts of depression or anxiety. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since our feelings are valuable sources of input.
However, sometimes, for a variety of reasons, such emotions can get the better of us. Effective treatment can involve psychotherapy, reevaluating (and possibly altering) our life circumstances, or medication, depending on the cause and severity of our emotional disruption.
What if there were a no-cost, relatively convenient way to alleviate depression and anxiety? What if this method could also improve your physical health, which, after all, is intricately connected with your emotional and mental well-being? What if this approach could also improve your social life?
Well, there is – physical exercise.
Ways in which exercise supports emotional health:
Increases levels of endorphins, feel-good hormones that boost our mood and contribute to feelings of relaxation. Endorphins are natural cannabis-like chemicals secreted by our brains which also bolster immunity and lower our perception of pain.
Increases ability to concentrate. Exercise boosts levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, brain hormones that positively impact focus as well as mood. Also, exercise increases blood flow to the brain, including more oxygen and other vital nutrients, and helps to build new neural connections in our brains.
Decreases levels of adrenalin and cortisol, hormones that our bodies produce when stressed and which increase body pressure, heart rate, impair our immune system, mess with our digestion – and increase feelings of anxiety and tension. While we need adrenalin and cortisol at moments of an acute crisis, such as dashing out of the way of an oncoming car, our bodies (and souls) are not meant to be flooded with these hormones over long periods of time. Over time, exercise reduces our blood pressure and heart rate, which contributes to lower stress levels.
Prevents and combats illness. Consistent exercise aids in warding off elevated blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and osteoporosis. Also, by boosting our immune system, exercise improves our ability to fight off colds and flus. When we’re not dealing with physical maladies (and associated pro-inflammatory proteins produced by our bodies), we generally feel much better emotionally.
Increases energy. When we work out regularly, we build strength in our muscles, heart, and lungs, all of which translates into better physical stamina. Whether it’s taking groceries out of the car, climbing stairs, or just getting out of bed, we will have more get-up-and-go.
Improves our sleep. People who exercise tend to sleep more soundly that people who are largely sedentary. However, working out within several hours of going to bed may disturb your sleep, so it may be best to exercise earlier in the day.
Increases our self-confidence. When we do something positive for ourselves, such as taking a brisk walk around the block, working out with weight machines, or going for a swim, we’re likely to feel better about ourselves. Also, we’ll probably feel pleased with our improved muscle tone and strength, as well as our willingness to set and meet exercise goals.
Distracts us. Ever go over and over a problem in your mind, even though you knew that this wasn’t helping matters and might be making things worse? I thought so. Exercise can help divert our attention from negative thought patterns. To help with the distraction effect, try to focus on what your body is doing in this instant, such as how your feet feel on the ground or how the wind feels on your skin. Engaging in exercise that requires mental concentration, such as learning new dance or yoga moves, can also aid in the diversion effect.
Improves our connections with other people. If we engage in forms of exercise that involve other people, such as a team sport, jogging with a friend, or a group exercise class, we give ourselves the opportunity to bond with our fellows before, during, and after exercise. When we smile at someone or greet them in a friendly manner, our mood is likely to lift.
If you’re wondering how you can possibly find time to exercise, or if the very thought of going to a gym feels intimidating, do not despair. Short bouts of exercise such as a 10-minute walk can be a great start. If you can work your way up to three to five 30-minute exercise sessions a week, excellent, as this amount has been associated with significant improvement in symptoms of depression or anxiety. If planning walks with a friend will make you more likely to actually get in that walk, go for it.
Or maybe you enjoy dancing or hiking (or did, before depressive or anxious feelings emerged). Listen to what does or did inspire you, and plan your exercise regime accordingly. As for hiking or other exercise done in natural surroundings, these activities carry an extra dose of mood enhancement. How about walking your dog, listening to music, taking in the scenery, or rewarding yourself with a healthy snack afterwards?
Since feelings of depression and anxiety can get in the way of our motivation to exercise, try to pay attention to when you tend to have the most energy during the day, and plan accordingly. Some people bound out of bed, while other people ramp up slowly and feel more energetic by early evening. Once you’re familiar with your bodily rhythms, plan your exercise accordingly.
The key is to involve your body and physical movement in your overall emotional fitness plan. Figure out what works for you, start small, give yourself credit for your efforts, and make it fun. Your body, mind, and soul will thank you.