Exercise for Mental Health
Updated: Feb 6
There is a specific dosage of exercise that will have the greatest impact on mental health.
The dosage is: aerobic exercise at least 90 minutes a week, typically broken down to at least 3 separate days.
This is the floor, you can always do more.......but make sure you check with your doctor first!
There is an abundance of research on the mental benefits of exercise. Some of them include:
Decrease in anxiety
Reduced stress as well as an improved ability to cope with stress
Pride in physical accomplishments
Increased satisfaction with oneself
Improved body image
Increased feelings of energy
Decreased symptoms associated with depression
This is just the beginning of the list. There is a vast amount of research on the benefits of exercise. There are a few experts that I want to highlight who I think specifically address the benefits of exercise as it relates to mental health. One of them is Stephen Ilardi who wrote The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression Without Drugs. In his book, he has a chapter called Antidepressant Exercise. This 20-page chapter is a game changer in the field. He references a groundbreaking research study conducted by Dr. Jim Blumenthal at Duke University where aerobic exercise outperformed Zoloft in reducing depression symptoms. He also prescribes the type of exercise which has the most significant impact on depression. This exercise, antidepressant exercise, involves aerobic exercise for at least 90 minutes a week. Aerobic exercise involves activities that gets your heart rate to 60-90% of your maximum heart rate. There are very scientific ways that you can measure your heart rate and how to get to this 60-90% of its maximum capacity but what I will tell you is that if you are exercising to the point it is difficult for you to carry a conversation while exercising, it is most likely aerobic. He also provides some pointers on getting the most out of this exercise. These are pointers are:
Choose an activity- essentially, choose an activity you enjoy. This increases the chances that you will continue to do this activity. Exercise does not have to suck!
Determine how much, how long, and how often- according to the research, it only takes 90 minutes a week. You must determine when you are going to get that in. I always advocate for more if you are able. When I say more, I mean more often and at the highest intensity possible but at least start at the floor, 90 minutes a week.
Make it enjoyable- if you are going to exercise, try to have fun with it. Some ways you can do that is make it social, absorbing (listen to some good music or a good podcast like the All in Ya Head Podcast), use this time to meditate. Some of my best meditation happens during a run. You can also make is purposeful, check out a new area, get something accomplished while you exercise such as working on your yard, maybe even walk or run to a place you need to be anyways. This taps in to our ancestral traits of moving with purpose. Our ancestors learned early on that they only have so much energy so that they must maximize its purpose such as harvesting food, hunting, etc. We are wired to move with purpose.
Create a schedule- habits do not happen overnight. Sometimes we must start with a strict schedule, this schedule becomes a routine, and this routine becomes a habit. I also have to put it on a schedule so that I make sure it is a priority, I will put exercise on the schedule first, and then schedule around it. Exercise is my medicine so I need to make sure I get my dosage.
Another classic resource for the benefits of exercise and the brain is a book called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by Dr. John Ratey. This book has a wealth of knowledge and essentially provides research and evidence that exercise not only helps our body but helps our brain to be more adaptive and function at an optimal level. When our brain functions at the optimal level, we learn things faster, we have better control of our emotions, and better manage stress and anxiety. Dr. Ratey discussed in depth how exercise can improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, ADHD, and addiction.
The last book that I want to reference is Brain Rules, 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School written by John Medina. He is developmental molecular biologist who came up with 12 principles for optimal brain performance. His rule about exercise is simple yet powerful, Exercise boosts brain power. At is relates to exercise he states a few key points:
Our brains were built for walking- 12 miles a day.
To improve your thinking skills, move
Exercise gets blood to your brain, bringing it glucose for energy and oxygen to soak up the toxic electrons that are left over. It also stimulates the proteins that keeps neurons connecting.
Aerobic exercise just twice a week halves your risk of general dementia and cuts your risk of Alzheimer’s by 60 percent.
I want to end in the same place I started, the specific dosage of exercise that will have the greatest impact on mental health. The dosage is: aerobic exercise at least 90 minutes a week, typically broken down to at least 3 separate days. Do it for your mental health!!!
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