Why have we come to associate physical activity with vanity? Do the ‘gym rats’ have a monopoly on being healthy? If you don’t care about pumping iron, making gains, six packs, and Instagram likes, should you still make an effort and activate your body?
Mens sana in corpore sano – that’s a fancy saying in Latin. Feel free to impress your friends with it!
It means ‘A healthy mind in a healthy body’. Apparently, the Ancient Romans were well aware of the importance of physical activity for achieving, improving and maintaining mental health.
Let’s explore the many benefits that a daily jog, or a weekly game of racquetball, can provide for your mental well-being.
Exercise and mood
Exercise is linked to an increase in serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. These are all ‘mood-lifter’ chemicals our brains produce.
Moods are complicated and unstable. They don’t call ‘em ‘mood swings’ for nothing!
Some days, we just get up on the wrong foot. Everything and everyone around us seems to push our buttons the wrong way.
Other days, a simple gesture of kindness from a loved one can lift our spirits.
Fortunately, we are not left helpless to the whims of our neurochemistry. While scientists are yet to reach an agreement on what exactly makes us feel down in the dumps, there are some things that definitely help our brains secrete good chemicals. The stuff that makes us feel satisfied, fulfilled and confident.
You guessed it. Physical activity can coax the happy hormones out of their cage.
According to a study done by Karmel Choi, a clinical and research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, replacing 15 minutes of sitting with 15 minutes of running can lower the chances of major clinical depression by 26 percent. Additional physical activity boosts this percentage even more.
Choi admits that scientists suffer a ‘chicken-and-egg’ conundrum regarding depression and physical activity. It is still unknown whether depression causes people to be more stationary or if being stationary causes depression.
One thing is certain – investing an hour a day into a brisk walk can do wonders to your mental health.
Exercise and sleep
Exercise makes you sleep better.
A sleep-deprived mind is not a happy mind. If you’re trying to do your job, take care of your family or even perform simple tasks around the house, lack of sleep is your enemy.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following amount of sleep per age group.
Not all sleep is equal. The body, including the brain, regenerates and rests during what is called deep REM sleep.
In a systematic review, Brett A. Dolezal et al compared the results of 34 studies on the interdependence of physical activity and deep REM sleep.
While the different studies don’t all agree on the amount and required timing of exercise, they all concur that even a haphazard, thrown together routine can facilitate deep sleep. And that’s true across all age categories, in differing amounts.
In addition to wearing your body out, which makes you fall asleep easier, exercise also improves the quality of your sleep. Deep REM sleep is essential for all bodily functions, including the quality of your mental health.
Exercise and ADHD
Sure, kids are rambunctious, wild, and untamed. They’re kids! Kids daydream. They have a hard time concentrating on important, boring things. They don’t want to keep still. They talk incessantly, and they’re all over the place. In fact, parents don’t have any issue falling into deep REM sleep when the rare chance is provided.
Some kids are such little hellraisers, however, that it becomes a problem for them and everyone around them.
According to a 2016 study by Danielsen et. al, 8.4% of children aged 2-17 suffer from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
This neurodevelopmental disorder often makes it very difficult for a child to control their impulses and integrate into society. In some cases, ADHD goes undiagnosed and causes problems well into adulthood.
There are many facets to taming and riding out ADHD. A healthy diet, medication, limited screen time, and a tight sleeping schedule all help.
A recent study has shown that physical exercise can do a lot of good for persons who have ADHD.
Raising the heart rate reduces impulsivity, hyperactivity, improves attention control, and enhances functionality all around for people with ADHD.
Any type of exercise will do—team sports for team players, football, basketball, racquetball, whatever. Solo exercise for lone wolves, whatever raises the heart rate, will do. It’s best if you let your child decide which activity to partake in.
Exercise and PTSD
When a person of any age has gone through a particularly stressful or traumatic event, they are at risk of developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Persons with PTSD suffer from a wide variety of symptoms, including diminished cognitive performance and reliving traumatic situations through turbulent nightmares and disruptive memories. These contribute to hyperarousal, severe drops in mood, and a prevalence of ruminating, intrusive, negative thoughts.
PTSD also diminishes the motivation of its victim to be physically active. By proxy, PTSD also increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
PTSD is treated in a number of ways, including medication and psychiatric help. Unfortunately, these are not always readily available. This creates a barrier between a sufferer and their healing.
Thankfully, studies have shown that structured exercise and sports play a significant role in diminishing existing symptoms in people living with PTSD, as well as reducing the chances of developing new symptoms.
Aerobic exercise, either alone or in conjunction with standard treatments, can positively affect a person’s mental health with PTSD.
Developing an exercise routine
Studies across the board show that engaging in sports can protect us from contracting mental illness and help us with existing symptoms.
Here are a few quick tips on how to develop an exercise routine of your own.
1. Make a schedule and stick to it.
Make a schedule that fits your needs and capabilities. There’s no use in creating an impossible plan that you’re never going to follow. Start slow, four days a week of manageable activity.
Just the fact that you’ve made a decision and you’re sticking to it will boost your mood. Within a month, you’ll be feeling all of the benefits, and your investment into your sanity will start to pay off ten-fold.
Sometimes, you work out alone. Other times, you have a buddy. Cardio on the weekends, bodyweight exercise on weekdays, and cutting the monotony once in a while with sports like basketball or racquetball can make your routine feel less like a chore.
3. Be careful!
Exercise is supposed to push the limits of what you thought your body was capable of, but it isn’t supposed to hurt! If you have a preexisting injury or feel one is developing, stop your activity and consult a professional.
Make sure you stretch regularly. Yoga is known for being beneficial for both body and mind, and a day spent stretching your muscles and tendons out is a day that keeps you away from recurring injuries.