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The Connection Between Exercise and Good Mental Health

If you come and see me for therapy, one of the questions I will ask you during our first session is "how often do you exercise?" Why do I ask this? Because research shows a connection between exercising and reducing depression and anxiety symptoms. Exercise is also great to rely on when you are going through a stressful situation. When a person is depressed, it might seem difficult to get going and find the motivation to exercise, but once you get going the benefits start flowing. Exercise is theorized to increase the levels of serotonin in your brain, supporting the growth of neurons, and regulating sleep (reduced levels of sleep can be a factor in increased depression and other mental health issues).

When you have a depressed mood or are in the middle of a particularly stressful situation, the last thing you might want to do is get up and exercise. However, this is precisely the time that it is best to exercise. Michael Otto, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Boston University says, "Failing to exercise when you feel bad is like explicitly not taking an aspirin when your head hurts. That's the time you get the payoff."

The Mayo Clinic identifies ways in which you can get moving and receive the benefits of exercise:

-Identify what you enjoy doing. You don't need to sign up for an Ironman Triathlon in order to experience the benefits of exercise. Start off with a walk. Do you enjoy riding your bike? Playing basketball or tennis? Running around your local park kicking a soccer ball with your children? Is there something you have always wanted to try like yoga, pilates, or dance? Do what you enjoy or else you will not want to follow through with achieving regular exercise.

-Get your mental health provider's support. Ask your provider how exercise can fit into your treatment program

-Set reasonable goals. Figure out a program you can realistically stick to so you do not burn yourself out.

-Don't think of exercise and physical activity as a chore. Look at exercise like you view therapy sessions or medication. It is one more component to make you feel good and recover.

-Analyze your barriers. What is stopping you from working out? Are you feeling self-conscious about going to a gym? Perhaps think about working out at home. Are you limited on how much you can spend on gear? Look for free community activities or take up exercise such as walking or running which are free. Do you need some motivation to get going? Ask a friend or co-worker to partner up with you and keep you company while working out. Are you limited on time? Take walks during breaks or wake up a little earlier to achieve your goals

-Prepare for setbacks and obstacles. Give yourself credit for what you have achieved and give yourself a break if you have to skip a day due to other obligations.

Exercise isn't the cure for depression, anxiety and other mental health symptoms. However, participating in a regular exercise program is a good step in the right direction and one component that can help you feel better and improve your mental health.

Sources: Mayo Clinic Article: Depression and Anxiety: Exercise Eases Symptoms, by Mayo Clinic Staff

American Psychological Association Article: The Exercise Effect by Kirsten Weir, December 2011, Volume 42, Number 11.

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