Do you have a spring in your step now that the winter is over? Many of us are contemplating resuming our routine of exercise and outdoor activities because we intuitively know that being active makes us feel better both physically and emotionally.
Mind over body, or something else? Thousands of years ago, the eastern world recognized the intricate relationship between the body and brain. It was in this context that the concept of yoga was born – in short, Yoga is the ‘yoking’ together of mind, body and spirit through exercise. In contrast, the western world has only recently embraced the concept that a healthy body equals a healthy mind. With this in mind, the scientific world is now involved in significant, but not yet adequate, research on the effects of physical exercise on our emotional and psychological well-being.
So what are the benefits? The body of current scientific evidence points to the following emotional and psychological benefits of regular exercise. These benefits are, of course, in addition to the better known physical benefits: • Decreased anxiety: Many of us know this from our personal experiences with regular exercise, we tend to feel calmer. There is some evidence that regular exercise could be a useful part of treatment for even a serious psychiatric condition such as panic disorder. • Decreased depression: Regular exercise not only seems to decrease the symptoms of clinical depression, but also seems to prevent relapse . • Improved self esteem: This is most likely related to enhanced body image and a sense of accomplishment from sticking to a routine. • Good mood: I don’t know about you, but I certainly experience a feeling of elation for hours after completing my exercise routine. Many others report the same experience. • Restful sleep: Regular exercise is known to decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and to reduce nighttime awakenings. It also increases total sleep time and deep wave sleep (as opposed to REM sleep). It is during deep wave sleep that the brain restores itself. And it is not a coincidence that every major psychiatric ailment is associated with some kind of sleep disturbance. Needless to say, restful and restorative sleep is one of the keys to our overall emotional functionality. • Improved ability to respond to stress: After a few days of sleep deprivation, do you feel crabby and impatient? I am sure many of you do. A better night’s sleep is only one of the many ways regular exercise helps us respond to stress. Exercise promotes increased self-confidence and a sense of calmness, increasing our ability to deal with stressful situations.• Improved sexual function: Our sexuality is a very important aspect of our self-image. Regular exercise is well known to improve and retain sexual function in both sexes. • Improved memory and learning: Older individuals who regularly exercise are less likely to suffer from memory loss and other cognitive difficulties. What is the best way to exercise: In my clinical practice, patients ask me this question frequently even though I am not a trainer, physical therapist or a sports medicine specialist. This again underscores the intuitive awareness that many of us have about the beneficial effects of exercise on our psychological health.
In order to obtain optimal emotional benefits from exercise, you should do the following:• Choose physical activity you love: If you love doing something, you are likely to do it regularly. Some like to walk or run; while others like to play a sport such as tennis, basketball, etc.• Consult and get clearance from your family doctor: This is crucial since you do not want to cause physical harm to yourself given your overall physical health.• Have a long-term goal: Be realistic about your exercise routine so that you can maintain it over a long period of time. Optimal emotional benefits of exercise are achieved only over the long haul. • Do not consider exercise a chore: Being physically active is a life-style change. For example, take the stairs as opposed to the elevator at work, walk rather than drive to a neighborhood store etc. Incorporating an exercise routine into your life-style can ensure your continued commitment. • Aerobic exercise is most beneficial: Most studies point to this. Examples are walking, running, swimming, and various sports.• 30 minutes a day, 3-5 days a week is optimal: This routine gives your body time to recover between exercise days, but still provides you with optimal benefit. • The higher the intensity, the greater the benefits: To avoid injury, you should know your limits and not overdo any routine. • Mornings are the best time: People seem to garner the best emotional and psychological benefits when they exercise regularly in the morning.
How does exercise help our emotional health? Although we do not completely understand this, there is some evidence that the emotional benefits of exercise could be due to the following:• Increased production of endorphins: These are chemicals produced by brain cells in response to exercise that seem to alleviate depressive feelings and promote happier feelings.• Reduced immune system chemicals: These chemicals are known to worsen depression. • New brain cell formation: Regular exercise seems to stimulate this in certain parts of the brain which are responsible for memory and learning.• Increased body temperature: This is associated with vigorous exercise and seems to have an overall calming effect on us.
My favorite exercise is undeniably Yoga, which, when performed properly, is a combination of aerobic and strength-flexibility exercises. Find your favorite exercise and get moving for improved emotional and psychological health!
The purpose of this article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical or psychiatric issue. Dr. Rakesh Ranjan is a practicing psychiatrist and a researcher. He is a recipient of several research awards and has authored several peer reviewed journal articles and book chapters on psychiatric illnesses and their treatments. He is a national speaker for several organizations and serves on the medical advisory board for the NAMI of Greater Cleveland. If you or a loved one is experiencing any symptoms that would lead you to believe that there could be a mental imbalance, please email your questions to Dr. Ranjan at email@example.com. Each Wednesday, Dr. Ranjan will address some of these questions in this column. All contact info will be kept confidential.