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How Exercise Helps Depression and Anxiety

“I’ve been active much of my life but have also struggled with depression from a young age,” says Kris Cameron, ACE-certified personal trainer and owner of ReNu Your Life—Mobile Personal Training & Wellness in Iowa City, Iowa. “About 18 years ago I was put on a very low dose of Zoloft (25 milligrams). It helped, but I also continued to be active, to work out—and I started my training career.

Three years ago I went through a job loss, then an injury that forced time off from my strength and running workouts. I tried to ease back into my workouts but would wake up in tremendous pain and sometimes [I couldn’t train clients]. I became frustrated and stopped working out altogether. I felt like a fraud as a personal trainer. My marriage hit a bumpy spot. I started experiencing anxiety attacks.

“My physician increased my Zoloft to 50 mg [and then] to 100 mg. That helped some, but I was still having anxiety attacks. One day, when listening to an audiobook about exercise and the brain, I realized this could have something to do with the fact that I wasn’t working out on a regular basis. I started scheduling in my workouts. I made an appointment with myself every night before bed to do 10–20 minutes of yoga/relaxation/meditation.

“My Zoloft dosage is down to 50 mg per day. I feel so much better. I share this personal experience with clients. We look at exercise for the physical benefits—how it makes our bodies look, how our clothes fit—but it’s so much more important to exercise for the brain benefits.

Like Cameron, to promote total well-being we must remind our clients of exercise’s power to improve both physical and mental health. Scientific understanding of mental health disorders is increasing—and exercise is emerging as a potent healing tool. Unlike diseases that manifest physically, mental health disorders afflict the brain and can impact mood, perception, personality and cognitive abilities.

Historically, more stigma has been associated with mental ailments than with physical illnesses. Fortunately, as we gain understanding, compassion and transparency, our efforts to address mental health issues are improving. With mounting scientific evidence that exercise and physical activity can alleviate or help manage symptoms of the two most common disorders—anxiety and depression—fitness and wellness professionals have an important role to play.

Science Says: Exercise Benefits Mood and Mental Health

In studies, exercise, as a subcategory of physical activity, is defined as planned, structured and repetitive bodily movements done to improve or maintain one or more components of physical fitness (Howley 2001).

Experts offer multiple reasons why exercise positively impacts mental health; most agree it’s likely a combination of indirect and direct factors. Better circulation and reduced inflammation, boosts in psychological outlook, exposure to positive environmental factors, and perceptual and behavioral shifts are all “side effects” of exercise that enhance mental health.

According to the science, exercise may improve mental health in the following ways:

By enhancing physiological health. “Physical activity benefits overall brain health by reducing peripheral risk factors for poor mental health—such as inflammation, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease—and by increasing blood flow and associated delivery of nutrients and energy,” says Angela Clow, PhD, professor in the department of psychology at the University of Westminster, London, and coeditor of Physical Activity and Mental Health. Depression and other mental ailments are associated with low physical activity; being more physically active reduces mental illness risks (Cooney et al. 2013).

By raising tolerance for emotional stress. Since exercise is stressful, regular exercise increases a person’s resilience toward other forms of physical and emotional stress. Having more physical and emotional strength—from consistent fitness training—seems to help people adapt better when tough situations occur (Otto & Smits 2011).

By increasing familiarity with physical stress. For some anxiety sufferers, an elevated heart rate, profuse sweating, chills and other stress symptoms that can occur during an anxiety attack are, by themselves, upsetting. By exercising regularly, people can learn to control their experience of physiological stress—like an elevated heart rate or sweating—and these symptoms can become less frightening.

By boosting self-efficacy. People who master a new skill improve self-efficacy, which subsequently leads to higher self-esteem. Learning how to exercise is an example of a skill that increases self-efficacy. High self-efficacy predicts well-being, while low self-esteem is associated with mental illness (Clow & Edmunds 2014).

By fostering social contact. Social interaction improves mood. Exercise frequently occurs together with others or with friend and family encouragement. This support boosts mood (Cooney et al. 2013).

By diverting negative thinking. People with depression or anxiety often get stuck in negative thought cycles. Exercise, especially when mindful, may be a diversion from self-rumination, focusing thoughts away from negative inner concerns toward engagement with the present and with pleasurable experiences (Otto & Smits 2011).

By encouraging engagement instead of avoidance. Focusing on exercise pursuits provides value. Creating a structured program directs focus on the value of activity, rather than withdrawal, and teaches persistence. This lesson in engagement, in spite of escape urges, can help people with anxiety to overcome avoidance in other life areas.

For more practical application, please see “Train Yourself Happy” in the online IDEA Library or in the June 2014 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.

Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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