Written by Chad Pilkington
We’re going to get into a little bit of a sensitive topic here: mental health. We have all heard about the numerous physical health benefits to an active and healthy lifestyle, but what about its effects on mental health?
If you’re human like the rest of us, you’ve likely experienced some lower points in your psyche at some time in your life. It happens to the best of us, no matter how we carry ourselves around others. What you may not have known, however, is that exercise can directly improve your mental health in several ways.
Exercise is a scientifically-proven anti-depressant. It stimulates your endocrine system, releasing endorphins that lift your mood. Additionally, exercise has been shown to improve coordination between your central and your sympathetic nervous systems, increasing efficacy in combating future stressors. Some of those endorphins, such as norepinephrine, directly combat your body’s stress levels and aid in reversing stress-induced damage to the brain.
Although there haven’t been many studies linking the two together, a research study of over 13,000 high school students by the University of Vermont indicated a 23 percent decrease in risk of suicide by bullied teens for those who were physically active four or more days per week. The research for this one specific demographic indicates the propensity for aiding other demographics similarly…meaning that it is very likely that an active lifestyle can also contribute to less feelings of hopelessness and suicidal ideations.
Less serious but still important is the massive self-confidence boost that comes with regular exercise. The increases in strength and endurance, the changes in body composition, and fitting into your favorite pair of jeans have profound impacts on self-efficacy.
All of us need sleep, and according to SleepHealth.org, between 50-70 MILLION Americans are impacted by sleep issues. That’s an awful lot of people not getting the right amount of sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to poor decision-making, drowsy driving, increased stress levels and many other issues.
Proper exercise can help combat sleep issues with impressive efficacy. Not only will exercise help to regulate your circadian rhythm for more natural sleep, the increase in body temperature helps calm the mind with warmth and put it in a more relaxed state. Plus, the extra energy expended during exercise will help your body naturally feel more tired when it’s time to wind down for the night.
Another huge benefit of exercise becomes increasingly important as we age: cognitive function. Studies have shown that cardiovascular exercise creates new brain cells through neurogenesis. This helps to prevent cognitive decline, increase mental energy and creativity, and improve overall brain performance.
There are too many mental health benefits of exercise to ignore. Improved sleep, increased libido, better endurance, stress relief, better mood, and increased energy should all be reasons we strive to stay active. In fact, evidence has suggested that exercise may be an often-neglected intervention in mental health care.
Personally, exercise has provided so many benefits to my mental health. Through a combination of active mental healthcare under the VA and maintaining an active lifestyle, I’ve been able to pull my mind out of some pretty low places through these last few years.
If you find yourself struggling with your mental health, you’re not alone. For years, we have pushed mental healthcare to the background because it’s something unseen. Now, we’re evolving into a society that embraces the psyche as an equally important part of health. Don’t let past taboos keep you from talking about your mental health. Get up, get active and stay active; it helps more than you could imagine.
If you or a loved one ever finds yourself with suicidal thoughts, talk to someone. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available to you in your time of need, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, at 1-800-273-8255.