Psychological And Mental Health Benefits Of Exercise
Exercise has been known to have immense health benefits. The last 2 decades have seen extensive research in this area and people have of course benefited immensely from a regular regime of exercise. And the beauty of it lies in the fact that it not only contributes to the bodily appearance of an individual, but also to the mental state. This can certainly be attributed to the mind-body connection.We might wonder what the mind-body connection means. The best way to understand this is by understanding the flu. Does the flu affect only the body or does it have an impact on the mind and how we feel at a thought, emotion, feeling level as well? The answer most certainly is that our whole being is affected. And vice versa is true too. Emotional overwhelm does have the potential to bring about body-related concerns, which usually results in medically unexplained bodily symptoms like aches and pains. These presentations frequently baffle the medical community. Therefore, in this article, we try to explain the connection.
Working out is the most tangible way of enhancing the mind-body connection, which is probably why Buddha said, “To keep the body in good health is a duty…otherwise we shall not be able to keep the mind strong and clear.” To add to it, in my clinical practice I recommend exercise to most of the clients and many have in fact mentioned how much it helps in the overall awareness.
This is because exercise has the innate ability of ‘mindfulness’. The ability to draw attention and bring complete awareness to the present moment as opposed to our autopilot, where we are entangled either with the past or the future. This helps achieve refocus. This important ability, directly promotes resilience. So, whilst the focus is on the body, the training of a mental refocus innately happens. The consequences of the neglect with the physical body is more tangible because one moment of inattention can cause an injury. Therefore, more often than not, heightened attention and awareness can be distinctly observed. And this in itself a practice of meditation or mindfulness.
Here are some significantly observable mental and psychological health benefits of exercise:
1. Boosts self- esteem and confidence:
One is allowed to wonder how exercise has a direct impact on how an individual perceives herself. The explanation to this is that exercise brings in an element of discipline. The discipline leads to being able to see a difference in two ways. One directly on the physique and two, the way we deal with emotional upheavals. As explained earlier in this article, the aspect of refocusing becomes less effortful. This epiphany definitely has a huge contribution to how we perceive ourselves. And this indeed has a role to play with ‘happiness’.
2. Leaves an impact on mood:
Exercise has an immediate impact on our mood. A study was conducted to compare the impact of physical activity and other activities like watching television, reading, etc. Researchers found that participants felt more active and calmer after physical activity than other non-physical activities. They also found that the effect of physical activity on mood was greatest when the mood was initially low.
3. Hobby and a ‘go to’ element:
It can help as an anchor in many stormy situations. We are victims of the illusion of control in a lot of aspects, but very few things are in our control. And most often, we find ourselves feeling helpless and stressed, forgetting that we have survived other similar situations and that this would pass too. In the interim, exercise can be helpful in channelising energies in a more productive way.
4. A platform for socialising:
Aristotle said, “Man is, by nature, a social animal”. We draw comfort, nourishment and enhancement from relationships. Research suggests that socialising can be an agent that helps combat concerns related to mental health. A sport or exercise group can become a safe place, a place for possible friendships, a place for the enhancement of physical and mental health!
Here are the top 2 biological effects of exercise:
- Dopamine and endorphins: These are chemicals produced by the brain. Their contributions are immense. Exercise is an activity that promises a natural increase in their production.
Dopamine plays a crucial role in reward and reinforcement, basic motivation and a better mood.
2. Promotes better appetite and sleep: These are restorative biological functions and have a huge impact on our daily moods and energy levels. Exercise promotes the full potential functioning of both, even in times of both everyday stress and relative distress.
Role of exercise in dealing with mental illnesses
- Researchers have suggested that exercise can be very helpful in treating mild to moderate level depression as effectively as antidepressant medication, and also helps to reduce the risk for depression by 26% (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health).
- Anxiety is known to show immediate physical responses of increased heart rate and shortness of breath. These symptoms can be reduced with regular exercise combined with a mindfulness activity. With more practice, even when anxiety is experienced the body reacts with lesser intensity, therefore becoming easier to deal with.
- There is emerging evidence that exercise can help in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. More specifically, exercise, particularly mind-body and low-intensity aerobic exercise, has been shown to have a positive impact on the symptoms of PTSD (Cohen and Shamus, 2009).
Rachna Muralidhar is a Psychologist and Outreach Associate at Mpower – The Centre, Bengaluru.