How Exercise Helps Manage Stress and Support Mental Health
A lot is happening in the world right now. Many of us are feeling completely overwhelmed. Anxiety and depression rates have spiked in the wake of COVID-19 and recent social unrest. If you’re feeling anxious and overwhelmed, you’re not alone.
But here’s the good news: exercise can help you manage stress and support your overall mental health.
The Body-Brain Connection
Scientists have long known about the body-brain connection.Working out releases neurotransmitters our brains need to stabilize mood.
These neurotransmitters - serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine – give us a “natural high,” making us feel happier and less stressed. Physical activity signals our brains to release these chemicals, immediately lifting our moods.
Even better? If you exercise regularly, your brain releases these chemicals regularly, changing your mood and the chemical makeup of your brain.
Turns out, working out isn’t just great for your body. It’s good for your brain, too.
How Exercise Combats Depression and Anxiety
First things first: if you struggle with chronic depression or anxiety, we recognize that it’s a medical issue. Some people battle with these issues for years. If your doctor prescribes medications for your depression or anxiety, keep taking them. Exercise can help alleviate the symptoms you experience, but we recognize that working out doesn’t “cure” depression or anxiety for chronic sufferers.
If you have thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, call 911 or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
However, for those experiencing “acute” depression or anxiety (recent and sudden onset of these symptoms, especially if they are related to a specific event), physical activity might be the only treatment you need.
If you’re experiencing depression or anxiety, exercise might be the last thing you want to do. But forcing yourself to get active can have a dramatic impact on your mood. As soon as you get your heart pumping, your brain releases those endorphins, calming your anxiety, and improving your mood.
Plus, as you continue to work out, you will gain more confidence. Regular exercise helps us feel better about ourselves and our bodies, which in turn can lessen depression and anxiety we might experience over our appearance.
How Exercise Helps Combat Stress
Have you ever had a really hard day – one where stress takes over, and your whole body felt tense – but after an intense workout session, you felt better? That’s those brain chemicals at work again.
We can’t eliminate stress from our lives. But we can learn to combat it.When we experience stress, our brains signal the release of the stress hormone cortisol. And that hormone affects our entire bodies, making our muscles tense, our heads ache, and our blood pressure rise.
However, when you introduce physical activity, endorphins kick in. Those endorphins act as a natural painkiller, a stress-reliever, and a mood stabilizer. Working out can mimic the same emotional effects as meditation, massage, and deep breathing.
In addition, working out refocuses your mind. It’s hard to think about the stresses of work or home when you’re intently focused on today’s WOD. Exercise allows us to temporarily forget our anxieties, which gives us a chance to “reset” our thoughts and mood.
How Much Exercise Do I Need?
You might think that a particularly stressful day requires hours at the gym to combat your cantankerous mood. But research shows that even 15 minutes of physical activity is often enough to give us the emotional boost we need.
However, research finds that 30 minutes or more, at least three to five times a week, will have the most significant impact on depression and anxiety symptoms. The more you exercise, the better you’ll feel.
Ways to Get Moving
Here’s the good news: any physical activity is better than nothing. Find something you enjoy doing and get your body moving.
Of course, we are partial to CrossFit, but if the Box isn’t your thing, that’s okay. Try a group fitness class, ride a bike, go for a walk, or lift weights with a friend. Our brains react to all physical activity in the same way. If you get your heart pumping, your brain is releasing feel-good chemicals.
So, if you’re feeling down in the dumps, and you’re worried about the future, put down the phone, close the computer, and get your workout on. Your brain – and your body – will thank you.