Can Exercise REALLY Help With Mental Health?
This used to be me taking my mental health “medication”:
I would startle awake at dawn with panic building in my gut. Soon every cell in my body alert with anxiety, my mind fixating on all the things that have gone wrong in the past, are going wrong right now, and will go wrong in the future. All the ways in which I have surely screwed up. How I’m bad. How the whole world is angry at me. How they all hate me. How I’m all alone.
I’m cold and sweaty at the same time. I don’t want this day to start. I want it to be night again already. I just want to be unconscious. I just want this terrible dread to be gone.
But wishing and waiting won’t make it go away.
So I get up, get dressed, and go in the basement. I power on my treadmill and start moving.
I don’t want to, but I do.
And precisely eight to nine minutes into the run, a wave of calm washes over me. It’s like someone comes in, turns the lights on, wraps a warm blanket over my shoulders, and tells me that everything’s going to be alright.
And I feel it to be true. I know that I’m going to make it through this day and everything’s going to be alright.
I rarely wake up with that level of dread anymore. I’ve been faithfully taking my “medication” every morning for years. And I’ve also added a number of other practices to my daily routine that help keep my stress levels down and my mood up.
But my running sessions remain the foundation on which all my other efforts are built. It’s the single biggest contributor to my well-being and by far the most effective mental health “medication” I’ve been able to find.
For those of you who have been following me for any length of time, this isn’t news of course. You’ve heard me rave about the benefits of exercise more than a time or two. 🙂
But one of my goals with this website is to avoid promoting one-size-fits-all solutions. I don’t want to just assume that whatever works for me will automatically work for everyone else too.
If you’ve tried exercising, but it just hasn’t been the panacea that people like me claim it to be, I get the frustration.
So in this article, I want to take a more in-depth look at how exercise can contribute to your mental health, but also discuss the circumstances in which it might not.
Can Exercise REALLY Help With Mental Health?
5 Ways Exercise Can Contribute To Your Mental Health
1. Exercise triggers the release of GABA
Have you ever heard of glutamate and GABA? They are two neurotransmitters that regulate your nervous system. Glutamate is like the gas for nervous system activity, while GABA is like the brakes.
Well, exercise triggers the release of GABA so it helps calm you down.
And this is the reason why exercise has been so life-changing for me personally. When I had my DNA tested by Nutrition Genome, I found out that I had numerous genetic variations that make my body really sluggish when it comes to converting glutamate into GABA.
This would have been great for my ancient ancestors, because it would have compelled them to stay on their feet and work hard. But for a modern girl with a desk job, it just leads to a shit ton of nervous energy with no place to go.
Unless of course you decide to be a modern girl with running as a hobby. 🙂
2. Exercise balances other neurotransmitters
Exercise also impacts other mood-influencing neurotransmitters, like serotonin, norepinehrine, and dopamine.
This is why things can look, oh, so bleak at the start of an exercise session, but while you’re exercising, your mind might suddenly be flooded with optimistic thoughts.
“Well, maybe things are not so bad after all…”
“Maybe I could just try…”
3. Exercise puts an end to the stress response
Anxiety and depression are often rooted in excessive stress. And exercise is one of the most effective ways to shut down your body’s physical stress response.
The stress response prepares you for fighting or fleeing. And when you exercise, it fools your body into thinking that you are actually fighting or fleeing. The resources your body has been gathering for fight-or-flight get used up and your body concludes that it’s okay to calm down now.
Even if you are “fleeing” on the treadmill. 🙂
4. Exercise helps you sleep better
Too little sleep and poor quality sleep can also contribute to anxiety and depression. And this is another area where exercise can come to the rescue. Exercise increases adenosine, the brain chemical that helps you fall asleep.
5. Exercise contributes to your general health and well-being
Last but not least, when done right, exercise is good for you and contributes to your general health and well-being. And it’s a whole lot easier to feel good mentally, when you’re feeling good physically!
5 Reasons Why Exercise Might Potentially Not Help
1. Your issues are caused by something unrelated to the benefits of exercise
Mental health issues have a myriad of potential causes and some of those causes aren’t related to the benefits of exercise in any way.
For example, one of the factors lurking behind my own depression used to be a B12-deficiency. It made me tired and my daily life a constant struggle to simply stay awake and engaged, to the point that I just wanted to give up trying and stay in bed for good.
Now, forcing an undernourished body to exercise won’t help and might even hurt. The only cure for a B12-deficiency is getting more B12!
2. You are “taking the wrong brand”
Different kinds of exercise impact your body and brain in different ways. Depending on what is at the root of your mental health issues, some types of exercise might help, while other types might not.
For example, I need intense aerobic exercise (like running) in order to feel my best. Weight lifting or lower intensity exercise, while surely beneficial in other ways, just aren’t the fix for my particular mental health woes.
To find out more about how to tailor YOUR exercise program to your specific symptoms, check out this article from Nutrition Genome and especially the table about midway down.
3. You are exercising in the wrong environment
Think about what would happen if a diabetic were to wash down his meds every day with sugary soda. Do you think the meds would help much or would a big chunk of the benefits be canceled out by the excess sugar?
The same way, the circumstances in which you implement an exercise program might cancel out the potential benefits. For example, if I were to get up at 5am every morning, drive myself to a gym who knows where, and get on the treadmill in a crowded fluorescent-lit room with large-screen TVs blasting Fox News from every wall, the stress of that jarring experience would cancel out any benefits I would get from the running.
So it’s not just the type of exercise that matters, it’s the experience as a whole. And this is something that’s especially important for highly sensitive people to bear in mind. We need an exercise experience that reduces stress – not one that overstimulates!
4. Your dose is too high
Another way in which exercise can increase rather than decrease your stress levels is if you are simply overdoing it. If you exercise too frequently or too intensely given your fitness level, you will not only risk mechanical overuse injuries, but the inevitable stress and fatigue from an exhausting exercise-regimen could play a number on your mental health as well.
5. Your dose is too low
To avoid overuse injuries and burnout, it’s always best to start easy and progress slowly. But that also means that it might take a while to see the full benefits of what exercise can do.
For example, even a small amount of low intensity exercise – like going for a 15-minute walk – will usually boost my mood a bit. But in order to feel sustained benefits beyond the duration of the exercise session itself, I need to run for at least an hour per day.
Obviously, I couldn’t just hop on the treadmill one day and decide to run for an hour. It took many months to build up the fitness for that level of effort and it hasn’t always been easy.
But sticking with it for the long haul has totally been worth it!
And whether it’s exercise or something else – I hope that you, too, find exactly what you need in order to feel well!