Research has shown physical movement to be a powerful tool in alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as enhancing our overall sense of well-being. As we enter the sunshine and blue skies of Hot Texan Summer (TM), it is helpful to remember the beneficial effects of movement on our mental health and the importance of incorporating physical activity into our daily lives.
Over the years, a growing body of research has shed light on the positive impact of physical activity on individuals experiencing depression and anxiety. These studies highlight several key findings:
Release of Mood-Boosting Chemicals. Engaging in regular physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins induce feelings of happiness and well-being, counteracting negative emotions. This chemical boost can significantly improve mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Neurogenesis and Neuroplasticity. Movement has been shown to promote neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons) and enhance neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to reorganize and adapt). These processes play a vital role in improving cognitive function, memory, and learning abilities. By stimulating the growth and connectivity of brain cells, physical activity helps create a healthier neural network that supports mental well-being. Studies indicate that regular exercise may even significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia.
Stress Reduction and Anxiety Management. Movement acts as a natural stress reliever by reducing the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and promoting relaxation. Regular activity can also help manage anxiety symptoms, which often coexist with depression. Engaging in activities like walking, jogging, yoga, or swimming can provide a much-needed respite from daily stressors, promote a sense of calm and mental clarity, and improve sleep.
Social Interaction and Support. Participating in group activities or team sports provides an opportunity for social interaction and support. Engaging in activity with others can foster a sense of belonging and community, creating a supportive environment that combats loneliness and enhances our sense of well-being.
Physical activity can be a powerful a complementary tool alongside professional treatment for depression and anxiety. A recent meta-analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that relatively small doses of even moderate physical activity (2 hours per week) were associated with substantially lower risks of depression. (Dr. Roger Seheult examines this and another recent study exploring depressive symptoms and sedentary behavior in adolescence in the video linked below.)
Physical activity can be a powerful a complementary tool alongside professional treatment for depression and anxiety. A recent meta-analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that relatively small doses of even moderate physical activity (just 2 total hours per week) were associated with substantially lower risks of depression. (Dr. Roger Seheult examines this and another recent study exploring depressive symptoms and sedentary behavior in adolescence in the video linked below.)
If you are looking to enjoy these benefits by adding more movement into your life, here are some helpful tips:
Find or Rediscover the Joy of Movement. Experiment with different forms of movement until you find activities that you enjoy. Whether it's walking through the neighborhood, learning a TikTok dance, hiking with friends, hula-hooping, kayaking, or playing pickleball, choosing activities you genuinely enjoy will increase the likelihood of incorporating them into your regular routine.
Seek Support and Connection. Consider involving a friend or family member, or joining a club, exercise group or class to provide support and accountability. Sharing activity with others can make it more enjoyable, which will help you want to return to it regularly.
Movement can be a powerful ally in supporting our mental health and overall well-being. By engaging in physical activity, we tap into natural mood-boosting chemicals, promote brain health, and cultivate social connections. Embracing joyful movement as part of our daily life empowers us to take an active role in our mental health, helping us on the path towards a healthier, happier life.
Now, please excuse me as I take my not-so-stupid walk. (I hope to see you out there.)
About the Author
Clinical psychologist Dr. Kristy Novinski contributes insights, book and film reviews, discussions of pop culture, and exploration of news and research in the field of psychology.