We all know diet and exercise are the cornerstones to physical health. But what about exercises to strengthen the mind and heart? Today, guest blogger Matthew Morris tells us about 6 physical exercises that recent research has shown to be beneficial to both mental and emotional well-being.
Along with diet, daily exercise is cited as the most effective way to promote health and increase longevity. Want to be healthier and live longer? The answer is simple: get fit! We know–almost intuitively–that good physical health is related to physical activity. If we want to feel better physically, exercise has to be part of our daily routine.
But what about good mental health? We spend so much time thinking about our physical well-being, that we often overlook the just-as-important aspect of our mood and our outlook.
Luckily, the same tools we have to build physical health allow us to achieve mental stability, as well. Studies have shown that physical activity can have a tremendous effect on mental health, and can alleviate symptoms of depression, lessen feelings of anxiety, and increase life satisfaction and self-esteem. That’s some pretty wonderful news!
But what kind of exercise is right for you? Let’s take a look at some activities that are known for the positive effect on mental health, and how you can incorporate them into your day.
Yoga. The incredible growth of yoga is astounding. Not long ago, yoga was seen as a foreign and mystical practice, and finding classes was very difficult (my first class, in 1986, was in the attic of a yogi’s house, and it was one of the only classes offered in my state!). Now, ashrams and yoga centers are everywhere, and most gym memberships include classes.
And while many people choose to imbue the exercise with religion or spiritual meaning, the activity can be pursued as solely a physical exercise. In terms of mental health, yoga is pretty incredible: practitioners reports dramatically reduced feelings of anxiety, alleviated symptoms of depression, and increased overall mood. Employers often offer yoga classes for its ability to dissipate feelings of stress, and the activity has even been shown to help the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—which makes it an excellent idea for people who have suffered physical or emotional ordeals.
Running. We’ve often heard of the “runner’s high,” and while the idea may sound a little silly—it turns out that there’s some intriguing science to back it up! Runners have long talked about the activity’s depression-relieving qualities, and there’s plenty of proof for that, as well.
Perhaps the strongest benefit of running and jogging is “ease of use.” There is no equipment required, no teammates needed, and skills necessary. Simply put on some kind of athletic shoe, leave your house, and put one foot in front of the other. No matter how fit or not-fit you are, your heart rate will elevate, your circulation will improve, and you will eventually feel the “endorphin rush” that runners love to brag about.
Hiking. More and more, we seem to lead “indoor lives.” Even the exercise we manage to get—yoga classes, gym memberships, laps at the pool—seems to happen inside. Given that the CDC has discussed a link between Vitamin D, sunlight, and depression, it’s time to get rugged and get outside!
Hiking is a tremendously beneficial activity, and the mental health benefits attained are related to those achieved when running, namely decreased depression and decreased anxiety. The cardio aspect of the exercise elevates serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that is involved with improving symptoms of depression. But the added bonus to hiking is the community element: a long hike with a friend or family member provides social support, which researchers have found is a key component of mood.
For a related outdoor activity, try surfing or swimming. Get fit, get some Vitamin D, and get some color— and chase the blues away!
Dancing. It’s a bummer that traditional dance is not more embraced in United States. Most world cultures have ceremonial or ritual dances, which not only keep people fit and cheerful, but engender a sense of community. The activity is great for depression, seasonal affective disorder, and anxiety, and it also offers some really interesting hidden benefits:
- Artistic Expression. For most people who are not involved in the arts, modern dance seems… a bit out there. But if you’ve never seen the creative ways that dancers use space, interaction, and music to evoke mood and emotion, you should check it out! It can be quite moving If you are feeling blue and you have artistic inclinations, dance may be a great way to alleviate some symptoms of depression.
- Interpersonal Interaction. Many forms of dance are created so that different people become involved. Square dancing is a great example. If you’ve never tried square dancing, keep an open mind and give it a shot. The activity is tremendously fun, and the interpersonal nature of the dance can alleviate feelings of depression.
Mud Runs. Have you noticed the increasing popularity of group obstacle courses? There is WarriorDash, Tough Mudder, and a number of other races. The events look like they’re for maniacs—a visit to either of the websites above will display enthused participants covered in mud—so how do mud runs alleviate symptoms of poor mental health?
Believe it or not, the activity has all the makings of an excellent mental health booster. To enter and finish a race, you’ll need to be in pretty good shape, and as we’ve mentioned, the exercises above are all great for anxiety and depression. But the races also stress interpersonal relations, as teamwork and group activity are built into each obstacle. And, given that many of the participants are middle-aged men—who suffer loneliness at much higher rates than the rest of the population—the events can have a palpable effect on life satisfaction.
Tai Chi. Like yoga a couple of decades ago, tai chi is new to the Western health scene. The benefits of practice, however, are formidable, and the National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that the activity has “beneficial effects for various populations on a range of psychological well-being measures, including depression, anxiety, [and] general stress management.” Not bad!
The activity includes a number of slow-motion movements that flow into one another. They similar to graceful dance moves, and they require mental concentration, balance, muscle relaxation, and focused, relaxed breathing. The movements facilitate a range of motion, emphasize a straight spine, and can include a second person to interact and move with.
The best part about Tai Chi is that it delivers mental health benefits while at the same time being very gentle on the body. The practice is wonderful for senior citizens, people with physical limitations, or nagging injuries.
The truth is, any kind of physical activity you commit to will be good for mental health. If it incorporates movement, an elevate heart rate, and some physical exertion, it will alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. And if you can find an activity that includes other people or interaction with nature—even better! There are tools we can use to improve our mental health, and exercise is among the most effective.
About the Author
Matthew Morris is a mental health counselor at a hospital in Brooklyn, NY, and also runs a website that helps people start careers as nurse assistants. In his spare time, he’s a yoga enthusiast who’s looking for square dancing classes and trying to get his nerve up to join a mud run!
What’s your favourite exercise that increases your mood?