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The Surprising Mental Health Benefits of Exercise: Improving Physical Fitness, Alleviating Anxiety and Depression, and Enhancing Quality of Life

Exercise has long been known to be beneficial for physical health, but it also has significant mental health benefits. When compared to treatment programs without exercise, those with a physical activity component resulted in benefits across three main categories: physical, psychological, and life domains. Adding physical activity to treatment programs improved physical fitness, alleviated symptoms of both anxiety and depression, reduced substance use, and improved overall quality of life and sleep.

One study involving over 191,000 participants found that exercise can also prevent depression from occurring in the first place. According to the findings, about 20% of participants in the research minimized their chances of depression by engaging in regular physical activity throughout the week. The release of hormones and improved brain function resulting from exercise may enhance one's mental well-being. Exercise results in the release of endorphins and endocannabinoids, which reduce pain or discomfort associated with activity and reduce pain and improve mood.[0]

Researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology have shown that exercise may also improve brain health more directly.[1] The researchers examined the impact of chemical signals produced by active muscles on the growth of neurons in the brain.[1] Exercise has also been found to improve mood, with a study of more than 1.2 million adults in the United States reporting that those who exercised had 1.5 fewer days in the past month of poor mental health.[0] The greatest benefits occurred in those people who exercised 45 minutes or more for three or more days per week.[0]

While physical activity, in general, can benefit the mind, the amount of time spent exercising plays a role in those benefits. A few minutes a day is a great start, and individuals will certainly feel a difference.[2] However, doctors recommend a specific amount of exercise for optimum results. The World Health Organization recommends getting at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week, which is 30 minutes on most days.[3] If individuals work out at a vigorous level, they can cut that amount in half.[4] Even if individuals don't have that much time, they can still help their heart.[4] According to a recent study, metabolic markers can be positively impacted by just four seconds of intense effort.[4]

Adding exercise to more traditional treatment options may further help people recover from substance use disorder, according to new research. Despite the availability of various addiction treatment methods, such as medicated assisted treatment, professionals opine that natural remedies like exercise can be equally or even more effective for rehabilitation. According to a recent study, individuals who engage in physical activity while undergoing addiction treatment programs are more inclined to adhere to their recovery plan than those who do not exercise.

However, exercise is also a potential inflammation trigger. Raising heart and respiration rate increases inflammation temporarily, which then subsides.[4] According to a 2020 review, published in Frontiers in Physiology, high-intensity exercise with reduced recovery periods and repeated ultra-long bouts of endurance exercise create a persistent increase in inflammation. Engaging in moderate exercise does not seem to cause an adverse increase in inflammation.[4] Therefore, individuals should aim for no more than two or three high-intensity interval training bouts a week and pay attention to their recovery, which may be the most important aspect of any consistent fitness routine.[3] A few tip-offs that individuals may be overdoing it include a higher resting heart rate in the morning, trouble sleeping, and getting sick more often.[4]

Several research studies suggest that exercise is a viable therapy for individuals who suffer from depression and other psychological disorders. A meta-analysis revealed that as little as four weeks of exercise reduced symptoms of depression in people with major depressive disorder. As a treatment choice, Dr. Michael Craig Miller, who is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, draws a comparison between exercise and medication.[2] He asserts that physical activity alone can be just as effective as antidepressants for individuals with mild depression.

In conclusion, exercise is an effective treatment for mental health issues, and its benefits extend to physical health as well. Doctors recommend a specific amount of exercise for optimum results, and individuals should pay attention to their recovery and avoid overdoing it to prevent inflammation. Exercise is a natural remedy that can be just as effective as medication for individuals with mild depression and other mental illnesses.[5]

0. “Exercise can prevent and treat mental health problems, and taking it outside may add another boost to those benefits” Medical Xpress, 3 May. 2023, https://medicalxpress.com/news/2023-05-mental-health-problems-boost-benefits.html

1. “Brilliant Research Reveals How Exercise Boosts Brain Health With Chemical Signals” SciTechDaily, 12 May. 2023, https://scitechdaily.com/brilliant-research-reveals-how-exercise-boosts-brain-health-with-chemical-signals/

2. “The Mental Health Benefits Of Exercise Explained” Glam, 5 May. 2023, https://www.glam.com/1277455/mental-health-benefits-exercise

3. “What Happens to Your Brain and Body When You Exercise” Hackensack Meridian Health, 9 May. 2023, https://www.hackensackmeridianhealth.org/en/healthu/2023/05/09/what-happens-to-your-brain-and-body-when-you-exercise

4. “Can Exercise Reduce Inflammation?” Woman's World, 8 May. 2023, https://www.womansworld.com/posts/health/exercise-to-reduce-inflammation

5. “Exercise can be important for addiction treatment” Yahoo Life, 30 Apr. 2023, https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/exercise-important-addiction-treatment-035900709.html

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