The Best Exercise for Your Brain
The Mood Disorders Society of Canada put out a shocking statistic a few years ago: Chances are 1 in 5 that a person in Canada will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, including depression, mood disorder, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactive disorders and dementia, with anxiety and depression being the most common by far.
Another statistic that is climbing every year: nearly 10% of our country’s population is using some form of prescription antidepressant medication. This first-line conventional treatment is not cheap: a conservative estimate of the cost of mental illness in Canada in 2011 was $42.3 billion in direct costs and $6.3 billion in indirect costs. With so many Canadians living with mental illness, together with such high treatment costs, it’s a wonder that one of the most effective, safe and inexpensive tools for mood regulation is so underused as a prescriptive treatment for mental illness: exercise.
It seems almost too easy to think that something so simple could make a real impact on mental illness, but strong evidence speaks loudly. Studies on the neurobiochemistry of movement show that exercise is without a doubt an effective treatment for mental illness.
What kind of exercise?
Aerobic, resistance and strength training, recreational, and “green exercise”
Many studies investigating the benefits of exercise on mental health are done on aerobic exercise. Generally they look at 90-300 min/week of aerobic activity: jogging, cycling and other such medium- or high-intensity activities. Research reviews on aerobic exercise show significant reductions in depression and anxiety scores, improved cognition, and improved self-perception. A 2016 meta-analysis (multiple studies assessed together) on regular aerobic exercise as a treatment for depression shows it is statistically equally as effective as treatment with antidepressants without any of the cost or adverse effects of such medication.
When exercise is used in combination with medication, response is better than either used alone. Several studies have also shown aerobic exercise to be effective at reducing symptoms of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Fortunately, it’s not just running and aerobics that improve mental health. Studies have also shown the psychological benefit of regular strength and resistance training without aerobic fitness improvement. Regular weight lifting, playing sports and other types of active exercise can improve mood and decrease anxiety and depression scores as well as rigorous high-intensity running. These improvements to mental wellbeing can begin to be seen with as little as 20 minutes three to five times a week of brisk walking, tennis, dancing, weight training or anything else that gets you moving and your muscles pumping.
A review of population-wide studies in The U.S. and Canada tells another interesting story —it’s more beneficial when it’s recreational. Comparing data of people who use similar amounts of energy in household chores versus recreational exercise shows a greater psychological benefit in the group engaging in recreational exercise. Of course, if you like what exercise you’re doing, you’ll feel better afterwards.
Finally, to get the most out of any round of exercise, take it outside. Both physical activity and exposure to nature independently have positive effects on physical and mental health, but they have an even stronger effect on mood when experienced together. Their combination is being called “green exercise” and is proven to be more beneficial than exercise in a gym or on a treadmill.
A 2010 study shows that the perceived greenness of an exercise area is proportional to reductions in anxiety after exercising there. In other words, the greener the environment of your exercise, the less anxious you will feel after you’ve done it. Another study by Pretty et. al. (2005) reports significantly improved blood pressure, mood and self-esteem after running in pleasant natural environments versus control environments (running on a treadmill without a screen) or in unpleasant environments.
Who benefits from exercise?
The significant, measurable psychological effects described above are seen in clinical populations (those with a diagnosed anxious or depressive disorder) and in healthy populations, pointing out that exercise benefits both those with mental illness and those wanting to prevent it. It is interesting to note that the positive effect of exercise on parameters of mental health is independent of economic status, age, gender, and physical health status. This means that a person can start wherever they are—fit or not, young or old, and still feel the psychological benefits of exercise.
What you can do
You can start today. It doesn’t take much and you don’t have to become fit overnight. But committing to a goal of regular exercise to get your heart rate up or your muscles engaged can be enough to support your mental health for the long term. If possible, get even more benefit by exercising outside in a green environment. If it helps, find a group of like-minded people and sweat together. Going for a walk three times a week is enough to begin to feel a change without any side effects or costs to you – except maybe better health!
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