Mind And Matter: How Physical Activity Affects Mental Health
The medieval philosopher Maimonides once said, “the health of the soul can only be achieved after the health of the body has been achieved.” These words were uttered sometime during the 1100s, but they ring just as true today. While struggling to find a work-life balance, striving to keep up on social media and the numerous other factors that create stress in our day-to-day lives, people are placing special attention on their mental health. There are countless reasons to feel anxious in today’s society, and with them comes a newfound focus on improving and maintaining mental well-being.
Countless studies have proven that physical fitness even at a moderate level can almost instantly improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, ADHD and more. Despite society’s heavy reliance on prescription drugs, some doctors are currently recommending their patients find a personal exercise regimen before using medications. While the physical benefits of exercise are obvious to most of us, the list of physiological benefits from physical fitness is unending in what the American Psychological Association calls “the exercise effect.”
Biologically speaking, physical exercise releases endorphins, promotes neural growth and boosts dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin — all things that make and keep us happy. For instance, endorphins work to reduce feelings of stress and increase feelings of pleasure throughout the body. You don’t need science, however, to feel the positive effects of physical fitness from day one of a new exercise regimen. Sleep comes more easily and happens more deeply, your levels of energy and stamina are elevated, your stress feels more tolerable and less cumbersome, you feel more alert and awake, and your overall sense of well-being is higher. When your body feels good, your mind thinks well and feels even better.
Even the big health insurances companies are acknowledging the connection between physical fitness and mental health. On their website, Aetna talks about the release of endorphins, or “feel good” chemicals, as something that directly improves mental health. A psychiatrist with Aetna Behavioral Health, Alan Schneider, MD, is quoted saying that for those patients who regularly exercise, “their mental state tends to be better.”
So, what can we do to better our bodies, and thus better our minds? The Mental Health Foundation recommends only 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five times a week. That means anything that gets your heart beating and your blood pumping without being too aggressive. Your regimen doesn’t have to be exactly that, however, because the point is simply to get active. Mental Health America stresses the importance of finding an exercise routine that is easy to incorporate into your daily life, and creating a personal fitness plan that is tangible. Anything from yoga to HIIT to a team sport will get your body moving in a positive direction, and your mind will naturally follow suit.