During mental health month I want to touch on the mental health benefits of exercise. Women experience depression – and anxiety – 50% more than men at least up until the age of 65. Hormones play a part, so it’s only fair to fight fire with fire. This post is all about the mental health benefits that occur when you use exercise to positively influence hormones.[And… if you want to jump down below after the post I share my own and Flipping 50 community members personal shares.]
What’s gets you out of bed to exercise or motivates you to finally Google up an exercise video or call a health coach is most likely to be weight, energy, arms, or a mother-of-the-bride dress.
What’s gets you hooked so that you won’t give it up is most likely to be the mental health benefits.
The mental health benefits of exercise are numerous. For women in midlife that’s good news.
When hormone levels fluctuate during peri-menopause and menopause brain fog, memory loss, lack of creativity and productivity can plague even the highest functioning woman.
Anyone in today’s fast paced connected 24/7 lifestyle can experience those symptoms. It’s not just a midlife woman thing. But you are more susceptible if you’ve got a lot of external stressors and you’ve got hormone fluctuations happening.
Hormones that Help
Most people first relate exercise with endorphins. It’s true exercise creates endorphins. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s temporary. You’ll need it again. And that’s okay since you need to repeat exercise for physical results. But for long-term mental health benefits other hormones are actually more important.
Serotonin has significant effects on mood and is key in decreasing effects of depression. The anti-depressant effects of exercise are also thanks to brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). In fact “SSRIs” are the most often prescribed meds for depression. Their role is to help balance serotonin levels.
Just what mental health benefits can you expect or thank your exercise for?
Decrease Depression & Anxiety
Studies have proven exerciser therapy to be more favorable than medication and cognitive therapy in treatment of depression and anxiety.
Some therapists have employed walking sessions with clients for decades. Women in particular experience a bump in serotonin from exercise, sunshine, and venting with friends.
Girls let girls talk about problems. They don’t have the need to solve them. Talking, or venting, does wonders for developing what women need most, a collaborative and supportive environment.
Exercise recommendations: aerobic, strength training, yoga
In You Still Got It, Girl!(available on Amazon) I shared how walking 40 minutes a day three times a week significantly increased hippocampus size. For you and I, that’s memory central. There’s no intensity imposed, you walk your self-selected pace 40 minutes three times a week. That’s it. Not only did the hippocampus of study subjects not shrink – typical atrophy that occurs with aging – it GREW!
Interested in reversing aging? Start with regular exercise. Low to moderate intensity will do if you’re getting start.
Exercise recommendations: walking, biking
Decrease Risk of Dementia and Alzheimer’s
If you just read about the ability of exercise to improve memory, it’s easy to understand the effects of exercise on reduction of both dementia and Alzheimer’s.
So, while there may be genetics working against you (me too says my DNA results), armed with that knowledge, exercise becomes medicineor at best, a vitamin.
Exercise recommendations: dancing, boxing, aerobic classes with choreography
Countless studies have proven mental health benefits of increased focus and concentration in regular exercisers. Compared to sedentary individuals, active workers get more done in less time with fewer errors. Looking for the elusive 4-hour workweek? Start exercising!
Specifically, exercise during a workday results in greater problem solving skills, better relationships with co-workers, and greater job satisfaction at the end of the day.
Workouts can be “sweatless” and still provide these mental health benefits. Yoga and stretching were equally as beneficial as vigorous exercise.
Exercise recommendations: walking, running, biking, swimming
A National Foundation of Sleep survey found self-reports of sleep improved by 33% with 10 minutes of walking every day. There isn’t any intensity imposed. Just walk. In fact, you can likely insert your favorite activity for 10 minutes and reap similar sleep benefits.
Exercise recommendations: walking, biking, elliptical, aerobic classes
Most people who exercise gain confidence and enjoy a healthy sense of self-esteem compared to non-exercisers. The reason for this occurs isn’t necessarily known.
It could be due to the sense of accomplishment. The satisfaction of setting a goal and following through could contribute. It may be a greater appreciation for the physical body provides a mental boost.
It’s probably due in part to all of those.
Exercise recommendations: weight training, walking, biking, swimming
The underlying reason each of these occurs has to do with lowering your allostatic load. That is, your overall stress. Let’s face it, going for a power walk doesn’t make the project deadline go away, eliminate your need to give a speech, or magically change your financial situation.
But it does increase endorphins (short term fix) and serotonin (the real hormone good stuff) so that you offset the negative effect of cortisol.
Exercise recommendations: walking, running, swimming, aerobic fitness classes, strength training, yoga
Optimize Mental Health Benefits Outside
The mental health benefits of outdoor exercise surpass that done indoors. In fact, exercise in green environments (think Central Park vs. NY city streets) was best for promoting mental health benefits. While physical benefits may happen in a wide variety of environments, “forest bathing” is best for above the shoulders.
Comments from Flipping 50 Community members:
I have never been treated with medication for depression except briefly 30 years ago and the second time in early 90s was a physician’s off-label use to try to prevent frequent migraines (didn’t work). Five years ago, in my early-50s I began exercising more regularly than ever in my life in an effort to lose weight. I also changed my nutrition. It helped my moods tremendously. I have dealt with depression and sometimes anxiety since childhood. Working out (or hiking — doing about anything outdoors) definitely helps me deal with stress, and the stress of feeling depression trying to come on. Exercising makes me feel better about myself. It is something I can control.
I started exercising to lose pounds and gain strength. I noticed right away that I felt better mentally as well as physically. Now, if I am not consistent on doing something active I can really feel it. I’ve had depression in the past and now I know that exercise is crucial for me!
I feel much better about myself when I exercise. I feel less anxious, more confident and patient. My doctor has prescribed exercise as an integral part of my treatment. Just like with my medicine, if I miss a “dose” of my exercise, I come to the edge of a slippery slope. It’s not optional if I am to maintain mental health.
I cannot stop exercise. If I do, I would be back on antidepressants. Some of us need the boost to our minds. Not optional for me.
What mental health benefits have you experienced from exercise? Comment below!