Very few of us are strangers to depression or anxiety in some form, whether it be a mild but unpleasant funk for a few days or a more serious mood disorder lasting months or even years. After all, just being alive usually means that we’ve ridden the emotional rollercoaster, be it due to a personal relationship, challenges with our job, or a medical challenge. If you’ve suffered from clinical depression, you’ve probably experienced 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, maybe you’ve struggled with anxiety, either due to an excessive workload at the office or school, relationship issues, concerns about finances, or an actual anxiety disorder. Perhaps symptoms of anxiety such as trouble concentrating, racing thoughts, difficulty sleeping, trembling, headache, or a nervous stomach are all too familiar to you.
If so, you are not alone. Since life will not always bend to our will, it’s inevitable that we’ll go through some periods of feeling discouraged or antsy. When such feeling arise, it may help to keep in mind that our feelings are valuable sources of input and can serve as guidance regarding what we really want and need.
All the same, at times such emotions can exceed their intended purpose and get in our way. If this happens to you, helpful treatment options can include psychotherapy, reevaluating (and possibly making some changes in) your life circumstances, or medication, depending on the cause and severity of your symptoms.
Regardless of the other methods you may try, it can be encouraging to know that there is a no-cost, relatively convenient way to improve your mood and well-being – and which can alleviate depression and anxiety. What’s more, this method can enhance your physical health and even improve your social life.
So here it is – physical exercise.
Some ways in which exercise improves our emotional health:
- Lowers levels of adrenalin and cortisol, hormones produced by our bodies when we’re stressed, and which increase body pressure and heart rate, cripple our immune system, disrupt our digestion – and increase feelings of anxiety and tension. We need adrenalin and cortisol during an acute crisis, such as fleeing a violent aggressor. However, we aren’t equipped to be flooded with these hormones over long periods of time. After awhile, if we exercise regularly, exercise will reduce our blood pressure and heart rate, both of which contribute to lower stress levels.
- Boosts levels of endorphins, feel-good hormones that bolster our mood and promote feelings of relaxation. Endorphins are natural cannabis-like chemicals secreted by our brains which also help our immunity and decrease our perception of pain.
- Increases ability to concentrate. Exercise elevates levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, brain hormones that benefit our ability to focus and also our mood. What’s more, exercise increases blood flow to the brain, meaning more oxygen and other vital nutrients, and helps to build new neural connections in our brains.
- Prevents and combats illness. Consistent exercise helps combat high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and osteoporosis. Through improving our immunity, exercise also improves our ability to fight off colds and flus. Do to the powerful mind-body connection, when we don’t struggle with physical maladies (and the resultant pro-inflammatory proteins produced by our bodies), we tend to feel significantly better emotionally.
- Increases energy. When we engage in physical exercise on a regular basis, we strengthen our muscles, heart, and lungs, all of which leads to greater physical stamina. Those everyday tasks such as lifting groceries, making the bed, or taking the dog for a walk will be less of an effort.
- Improves our sleep. People who exercise generally sleep more deeply that people who are mainly sedentary – one caveat being that exercising within a few hours of going to bed may disrupt your sleep. Not that this is true of everyone, but you may find that exercising earlier in the day benefits your sleep quality the most.
- Increases our self-confidence. When we take care of ourselves, such as going out for a jog or a bike ride, taking a spin class, or going for a swim, we tend to feel better about ourselves. In addition, we’re likely to appreciate our improved muscle tone and strength. What’s more, showing ourselves that we can set and meet exercise goals can give our self-image a lift.
- Distracts us. Ever review a problem again and again in your mind, despite your realizing that this wasn’t helping and might even be making things worse? Me, too. Exercise can divert our attention from such negative thought patterns. One effective method that helps with distraction during exercise is to try to focus just on what your body is doing in this moment – how your lungs feel breathing in air or your leg muscles feel as you pedal your bike. Trying a type of exercise that engages your mind, such as learning new dance or yoga moves, can also helpyou to stay focused in the present moment.
- Improves our connections with other people. When we choose a form of exercise that involves other people, such as a team sport, jogging with a friend, or a group exercise class, we get the chance to connect with others before, during, and after exercise. At such times, if we smile at someone or greet them in a warm manner, we’re likely to lighten our mood – and possibly open the door to a new friendship.
If you’re wondering how you can possibly find time to exercise, or if the very thought of going to a gym feels intimidating, no need to throw up your hands in despair. Brief bouts of exercise such as a 10-minute walk can be beneficial. If you can work your way up to three to five 30-minute exercise sessions a week, all the better, since this threshold has been connected to 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.