We all know that exercise is good for our bodies. It tones muscles, deters weight gain, lowers blood pressure and keeps our hearts in tiptop shape. Yet we often overlook the fact that it’s equally good for our moods. A 2008 study published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry found that physical exercise improved the moods of a group of people with severe mental illness. A second study in the Journal of Affective Disorders showed that patients at a psychiatric unit who voluntarily participated in a walking program had a marked decrease in their symptoms.
There’s a gym-bagful of reasons why it’s so helpful. First, exercise releases endorphins that elevate mood and decrease depression. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise reduces immune system chemicals that can make depression worse. Physical activity improves sleep. It also increases body temperature, which may have a calming effect.
Equally important are its psychological and social benefits. Folks who exercise gain confidence. They feel good about their abilities to meet goals and challenges. They’re more likely to be comfortable with how they look.
Exercise can serve as a distraction for everyday worries or obsessive thought patterns. It provides opportunities for social interaction. And it serves as a positive outlet for handling stress and anger.
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Fitness strategies can even be tailored to meet your emotional needs. If you’re battling depression, you might seek outdoor aerobic activities that increase your heart rate and expose you to some feel-good rays from the sun. Bicycling, hiking, jogging, tennis, gardening or kayaking are great outside activities.
If you tend to be anxious, try soothing exercises, such as yoga, swimming or walking. Karate can enhance self-discipline, selfconfidence and a feeling of personal safety.
Evidence points to the fact that exercise may be as effective as some mood-enhancing medication. A Duke University research study divided 156 patients diagnosed with major depression into three groups. One group exercised only. A second group received a common anti-depressant. The third group used a combination of both exercise and medication. At the end of 16 weeks, roughly two-thirds of all three groups reported being free from their depressed symptoms, with the combined group showing the best results.
You needn’t be a triathlete to reap the benefits that exercise offers. A study published by Preventive Medicine in 2006 showed that multiple workout sessions as short as six minutes apiece could help sedentary adults reach their fitness goals. Others advise getting 150 minutes per week, or around 30 minutes on most days.
The key is to start — and keep — moving to look and feel your very best.
HOW TO MAKE EXERCISE A PART OF YOUR DAILY LIFE
Select an activity you enjoy. Don’t worry about what you should do. Focus on what fits your personality, time frame and interest. You’re more likely to stay with a fitness program you like than one you absolutely detest.
Find a group. Make it a social happening. Join a hiking club. Kayak with buddies in Morro Bay. You’ll have the added benefit of camaraderie and support, two factors to help you stick with it.
Set a regular time to exercise. Decide what works best for you, then carve out that time in your schedule. The more you adhere to your timetable, the more likely you’ll see results.
Change it up. Vary your program often. Take different classes at the gym. Swim Monday and Wednesday mornings, and go to yoga Thursday afternoon. Crosstraining averts boredom and works different parts of your body.
Work with a trainer. Trainers serve a multitude of functions. They ensure that you work at your appropriate level and that you use proper form. They also hold you accountable to show up and be on time.
Be creative. There are oodles of ways to incorporate exercise into your day. You can park your car at the end of the row so that you have to walk to the mall. You can take the stairs instead of using the escalator. Each of these tiny events adds more mileage to your day and helps you feel much better.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit http://lindalewisgriffith.com.