Exercise as a brain hack for Anxiety, Depression and Stress

Exercise is not just about physical health, exercise plays a crucial role in mental health and it is this surprise benefit that keeps people exercising. 

Studies have shown regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety, and stress.

People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it gives them a great sense of well-being, they feel energised in the day, sleep better at night and describe feeling mentall sharper and positive about themselves.

Exercise is a powerful tool in tackling depression, stress and anxiety for several reasons. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. In addition to relieving anxiety and depression symptoms, research also shows that maintaining an exercise schedule can prevent you from relapsing.

The really good news is your commitment of time and effort doesn’t have to be olympian. A  modest amount of exercise can make a difference, this powerful tool is available to everyone no matter age or fitness levels. A little exercise goes a long way. 

It is not just exercise like running or hitting the gym, anything that gets you moving and raises your heart rate is good for you. If you don’t like exercising try dancing!

The key is to commit to some physical activity on a daily basis making exercise a habit.

Why does exercise help?

This is not new age thinking from California, this is hard fact based science. A chemical reaction occurs when you exercise that has a positive influence on your state of mind. 

Physical activity induces neural growth, reduces inflammation, and creates new brain activity patterns that promote feelings of calm.

Modest amounts of exercise cause the brain to release chemicals called  endorphins. Endorphins are a key chemical in creating a feeling of wellbeing and act in a very similar way to morphine. 

Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.

Other benefits of exercise

Mindful Distraction. As well as the physical effect on the brain exercise brings it can also serve as a  mindful distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts.

Adding mindfulness to your exercise can really help. Feel the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, be aware of the rhythm of your breathing, or the enjoy the feeling of the wind on your skin. By adding mindfulness to exercise and bringing your attention to the feeling you’ll interrupt the negative flow running through your head.

Sharpness. People that have been struggling and have decided to take up exercise commonly report feeling that they have a sharper memory and clearer thinking. This is because the same chemicals that make you feel better also help you concentrate and feel mentally sharp. 

There is also evidence that exercise stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline.

Better sleep. Even short bursts of exercise in the morning or afternoon can help regulate your sleep patterns. If you prefer to exercise at night, relaxing exercises such as yoga or gentle stretching can help promote sleep.

Obstacles to Exercise

Exercise obstacles are very real—particularly when you’re also struggling with mental health. Here are some common barriers and how you can get past them.

Feeling overwhelmed. When you’re stressed or depressed, the thought of adding another obligation can seem overwhelming. Just remember that physical activity helps us do everything else better. 

Getting started exercising when you’re anxious or depressed

is hard as motivation can be one of the most difficult things to find. You now know exercise will make you feel better, but the thought of going to a class or club might be hard. In this case start small, it is the best way to get yourself moving. 

Do not set yourself an enormous goal, don’t plan a marathon or even to join a gym. Set small achievable goals, ticking these off will do you the world of good. 

Remember something is better than nothing, start with a short, 20 minute walk. This can clear your mind, improve your mood, and boost your energy level. 

By committing to small goals you will have a sense of purpose and as you gain momentum and tick them off you will feel a sense of  accomplishment, which generates more feel good chemicals.

As you move and improve you can gradually start to set yourself more significant goals. You may even wish to exercise with somonels. You’ll benefit not just from the physical activity but also the companionship.