I hate running. From my high school struggle to get through the mile in gym class to a recent 5K training fail (I have “malformed” knees, according to X-rays), running has never been my friend. For this reason, I was somewhat wary of Running is My Therapy, a book by Scott Douglas. As a therapist, I’m interested in learning about holistic forms of treatment. But did it have to be running?
Happily, I quickly realized that most of the information Douglas shares can be extended to all types of cardiovascular exercise. Douglas uses copious amounts of research to show how those who exercise regularly can manage moderate amounts of anxiety and depression, as well as boost their overall mood.
Other countries already recognize and promote the mental health benefits of exercise. The United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada are just a few that encourage people with depression to start with exercise as an initial or standalone treatment. Given that only 21% of the population in the United States gets the recommended 150 minutes or 2.5 hours of light/moderate aerobic activity every week, it’s clear that this is one area we could improve in. And while people might think of exercise as a way to strengthen their bodies, they don’t always realize the effects it could have on their minds.
One reason for this lack of knowledge is the stronghold of the medicine and pharmacology fields. While pharma companies have the dollars to fund research, the US spends only about 3% of government health budgets on mental-health issues. But the studies that have been done indicate that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in relieving depression symptoms.
Research has also shown that exercise reduces anxiety symptoms, even when compared to placebos. And beyond relieving anxiety and depression, exercise has a whole host of other brain-related benefits: it prevents or slows age-related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases, it increases feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, and it enhances overall brain functioning.
Exercise is not a cure-all; people with depression, anxiety, and other disorders may still need therapy or medications to feel their best. But given all the benefits, exercise is always a smart choice to integrate into your life.
If this is inspiring you to dig out your workout gear, read on for practical tips on how to optimize your exercise so you can get the most mental health benefits.
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Pick a good time to work out
Douglas recommends at least 2 moderately paced runs (or similar cardio workouts) for at least thirty minutes each week. The best time for these workouts is when you’re most likely to do them. For this reason, many people plan to work out in the morning, so that the day doesn’t get away from them. But maybe you’re someone who thinks working out in the evening is a nice way to de-stress from the day. Either way, pick a time when you know you’ll be most apt to go.
While it can be easy to head to your gym or basement and jump on a treadmill, if you have the opportunity to exercise outside, take it! Studies show that green spaces like parks and forests have a more beneficial impact and will put you in a better mood. Another benefit: if you’re running or biking outside, you also have to be more aware of your terrain for any obstacles, which will give your brain an added workout.
Put on some tunes
Research has found that listening to music while working out at a low to moderate intensity can reduce perceived effort. This means that if you’re feeling sluggish or down, turning up some Kesha may motivate you to either head out in the first place, or finish that extra mile if you’re already running/swimming/biking.
Grab a friend
Exercising with another person will provide a social connection that will likely boost your mood. Since your body is engaged, your mind may also feel freed up to talk about deeper subjects that you may feel inhibited to explore normally. This is especially true when you engage in side-by-side exercises, such as running, biking, or rollerblading. The lack of eye contact can also lead to a feeling of greater openness and comfort. (In fact, certain therapists are now starting to invite clients out for walks and runs for this very reason!)
People who are depressed often feel that their days stretch on interminably; they have nothing to look forward to. Setting trackable, challenging goals can help people measure their process of improvement and feel a sense of accomplishment in that change. Setting goals can also help give structure and purpose on a day-to-day basis; for those who feel down or scattered, this can be a powerful remedy.
Mix it up
Whether you’re practicing one type of exercise or more, aim to vary your sessions by length, intensity, and setting. Keeping things different and interesting will make you more likely to keep exercising. For those who feel that they’re stuck in some aspect of their lives, the variation is also a good reminder that life will eventually and undoubtedly change.
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