Science Tells Us Just How Much Exercise We Should Be Doing For Our Mental Health
When you’re in the throes of depression, anxiety, a manic episode, trauma, or other mental illness, it’s understandable that a full-blown workout might not be your top priority. Yet, we can’t discount the extraordinary connection between body and mind.
Exercise releases endorphins, feel-good hormones that promote feelings of positivity and calm. It requires you to focus on the present moment and break away from crippling cycles of negative thoughts. Over time, it improves concentration, mood, and attitude, and provides the brain with a healthier coping mechanism to replace the toxic cycling.
But how much exercise should we be doing, on a weekly basis, to keep our minds in tip-top shape? Find out below, along with some therapeutic forms of exercise to try.
Aerobic exercises, like running
Running is an aerobic exercise – as in, it requires oxygen. As a result, running strengthens your heart and lungs, improves circulation, and enhances oxygen delivery to the brain. Increased oxygenation promotes clarity of thought, calmer moods, and better brain functioning.
Any kind of exercise releases endorphins, but long-distance running, specifically, features the reputed “runner’s high”. Experiencing the high allows you to break past the limit of what you think you can endure and keep pushing on for many, many more miles. That’s an attitude you can adapt to other areas of your life—while your mind may want to give up, your body will continue to remind you of how resilient you were born to be.
How much running: Begin with 20-30 minute runs two to four times a week, and work your way up. Increase your distance every second week to avoid pushing yourself too hard and risking injury.
Yoga uses the different asanas—or physical poses—combined with controlled deep breathing exercises. The stretches and movements required to perform the asanas loosen the knots in the body where we hold stress and tension. Meanwhile, deep breathing reduces physiological arousal, lowering heart rate and staving off stress hormones. As a result, the body physiologically and mentally calms itself down (if you’ll notice, it’s hard to be anxious when you’re breathing deeply!).
Yoga also encourages the practice of meditation, which promotes mindfulness and connection with our inner selves, apart from relaxation. Often, this leads to a profound emotional catharsis.
How much yoga: Yoga instructor Dr. Jodi Ashbrook tells Newsweek, “Yoga offers the opportunity to release stress and tension by helping you shift your focus to the present and connect to all of your holistic bodies; mind, body and soul.” Starting each morning with meditation, breathing, and a series of asanas will help you be calm and mindful throughout the day.
If you take the oxygen-infusing element of running and aerobic exercise, add the release of tension from yoga movements, and elevate it into an art form, you get dance. Not just about arbitrary, repetitive movements, dance requires you to memorise dance steps and even develop choreography. In this, it improves memory and encourages creativity.
Dancing for self-expression can be very cathartic. Numerous studies have shown that patients with depression often experience a reduction in symptoms after engaging in dance programs.
Dance is also rarely a solo activity. Whether you’re dancing in pairs or in a group, dance helps us form connections with others—which is crucial to mental health.
How much dance: Dancing is a form of aerobic exercise, so it’s recommended you get at least 150 minutes of dance in a week. You can increase the number of sessions once you’re comfortable getting your groove on!
Martial arts is a kick-ass outlet for stress and anger. It’s a widely-recognised way to get the endorphins flowing and to channel your pent-up aggression into a safe, healthy, and controlled means of expression. Martial arts like boxing, muay thai, judo, karate, taekwondo, and the like are all terrific forms of aerobic exercise—good heart and lung health is needed to keep up with each round of punches, kicks, blocks, and dodges.
You’ll also be exposed to different levels of sparring, which requires you be completely present in the moment—or else you’ll get knocked flat on your butt! Sparring hones your focus, removes distractions, and gives you a respite from the worries constantly plaguing your mind.
Martial arts is more than just exercise. At its core, martial arts is a way of living that requires you to introspect and gradually develop discipline, respect, and self-awareness. Ultimately, you are encouraged to healthily address the root of your issues, and find more peaceful ways of handling aggression and negative energy.
How much martial arts: Start with three sessions a week with your trainer, or two sessions and a workout at home. Take on more sessions once you’re ready to commit to the sport and its way of life.
Walking on flat, even ground doesn’t pose much of a challenge for the mind or body. In contrast, when you walk on uneven terrain, like mountains or along deep-sand beaches, each step becomes more deliberate. You’re constantly varying your stride to adapt to the terrain, engaging different muscles in your legs and raising your heart rate.
More importantly, your mind is engaged in watching where you will put your feet. That leaves you with less opportunity to ruminate—the term psychologists use to describe entering the destructive, cyclic thought patterns characteristic of anxiety and depression. A study that compared a group of people who took a 15 minute walk through an urban environment versus a natural environment showed that those who walked along natural paths reported less rumination.
Moreover, just being outdoors is already good for you! There’s fresh air for better oxygenation, and sunshine to boost serotonin levels and improve mood.
How much hiking: You might only have one day a week to travel to a hiking location and back home again. Your hiking time really depends on the difficulty level of the trail – start with short, easy, two or three-hour trails before moving up to ones requiring eight hours or more.
Find your pace
Remember that getting even a few minutes of exercise in is better than none at all. It’s alright to start small, and gradually work your way up. The beauty of exercise is that the more you do of it, the better your body and mind get at withstanding more over time. The first step is often the hardest. And yet, it’s crucial that we take it, in order to unlock our full potential.