The incidence and prevalence of mental disorders have skyrocketed over the past few years due to a myriad of factors, including work-related issues, personal and financial problems, and the general stress of our modern lifestyle.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 5 people experience a mental health issue in the workplace, with estimates stating that depression alone costs the economy 188 billion GBP every year.
One particularly intriguing piece of information is that if you invest $1 in the treatment of depression and anxiety, you will gain $4 as profit from the increased productivity.
In this article, we will discuss the primary ways to address mental health issues and the huge role of physical activity in the therapeutic approach.
The relationship between physical activity and mental health
Hundreds of published papers covered the importance of physical activity for the general well-being and the role it plays in decreasing the severity of mental disorders.
For instance, exercise can help improve the symptoms of depression, which is the most common mental disorder in the world.
This effect gets mediated by promoting the release of endogenous neurotransmitters that usually get downregulated in depression (e.g., serotonin).
Other hormones that get released during exercise are known as endorphins, which are commonly associated with the ‘runner’s high’. Endorphins also possess potent analgesic (i.e., pain-relieving) and anxiolytic (i.e., anxiety-reducing) properties.
Additionally, the secretion of dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine will help stabilize your mood and improve your mental well-being.
The effects of these neurotransmitters are not exclusive to mood improvement, as they also participate in:
- Improving your appetite
- Regulating your sleep cycle
- Boosting your energy levels
All in all, these factors will dramatically reduce patients’ stress and anxiety.
Now that we covered the basics, let’s see how physical activity helps with specific mental health issues:
1. Depression and anxiety
As mentioned earlier, exercise is a known stimulator of the release of endorphins; these chemicals have millions of receptors all over the brain, and in particular, inside regions responsible for happiness and pleasure sensations (e.g., nucleus accumbens).
By activating the neurons responsible for happiness, your mood will get significantly improved. However, you should keep in mind that major depressive disorder (MDD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are the direct cause of chronic imbalance between the neurotransmitters in the brain, and as a result, the process of getting better may take some time.
For this reason, researchers recommend regular exercise regardless of its nature.
What matters is the consistent stimulation of those neurotransmitters, which will start to show results after a few weeks.
2. Chronic psychological stress
Despite the fascinating processes that take place inside our brain, it still has some limitations.
One of its major shortcomings is the poor ability to distinguish between physical and psychological stress. In other words, if you get stressed about a project you’re supposed to deliver next week, your brain will react as if you are stuck in a cave full of deadly snakes with a bear blocking the exist.
The brain will activate the ‘fight or flight’ mode, which is run by the sympathetic nervous system. As a result, your heart rate accelerates, your breathing becomes shallow, you’ll start sweating profusely, and the only thing you can think of is how to escape.
Chronic activation of this system can lead to detrimental physical and mental effects, including heart disease, relative immunosuppression, MDD, and GAD.
These complications can get reversed by regular exercise since it restores the balance of neurotransmitters in your brain.
3. Low self-esteem and self-confidence
Regular physical activity can help people lose weight, increase their muscle tone, and improve overall physical fitness. Consequently, these effects boost self-esteem and self-confidence.
In a 2017 study, researchers found that individuals with higher self-esteem are less likely to develop mental health issues and psychiatric disorders. They also noted that self-esteem enhances mental resilience and reduces the risk of depression.
Another paper that specifically studied the benefits of collective sporting events found that this type of program is more beneficial than home-based exercises.
The study concluded that “performing physical exercise together with colleagues during working hours is accompanied with higher training adherence and is more effective than home-based exercise in improving vitality and concern and control of pain among healthcare workers. Thus, group-based workplace interventions aiming at relieving pain may induce physiological as well as psychosocial benefits.”
4. Sleep disorders
Regular exercise can help you fine-tune your circadian rhythm (i.e., biological clock) to improve the quality of your sleep.
Insomnia (i.e., sleep deprivation) is one of the primary symptoms seen with most mental health issues, including MDD, GAD, and panic disorder.
In the beginning, insomnia may be a consequence of the underlying mental disorder; however, and over time, it becomes an independent trigger that exacerbates the disease.
For example, patients with depression will experience insomnia at some point in their disease process, and the fact that they are not able to sleep or that they wake up early in the morning will only worsen their depression, creating a vicious cycle.
Keep in mind that people should avoid exercising near their bedtime, as it would trigger their sympathetic nervous system, which makes it challenging to fall asleep.
Mental disorders are a hassle to deal with for patients and their physicians. Moreover, the continuous intake of pharmacological drugs carries numerous adverse effects.
For this reason, researchers advocate for the use of physical activity and exercise to temper down the toll of mental disorders on the daily routines of people.
Hopefully, this article managed to shed some light on the importance of exercise on mental health, but if you still have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comment section below.
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