This pandemic has clearly increased the level of anxiety and depression for many. Young and old alike complain of varying degrees of discomfort and fear brought about by the uncertainty of the times.
What worsens the problem is the inaccessibility of professional help to address mental and psychological issues more than what is available online. While virtual counseling helps, it is obviously but limited.
Hence, there is a need to find other effective means which are readily available and within one’s control. And one such effective strategy is exercising.
Many do not realize how potent exercise is, especially for anxiety and depression and a host of other maladies. And yet, the irony is that many of us do not engage in it, maybe because it is always available, and something that comes in abundance is most of the time ignored.
But studies after studies have revealed how beneficial exercise is to our body, brain, and to our moods. For instance, a meta-analysis of 104 studies found out that people who engage in aerobic exercise feel significantly less anxious than people who engage in no exercise or nonaerobic exercise.
This is an important finding. To reduce feelings of anxiety, evidence shows that aerobic is the best. Examples would be running, jogging, walking, cycling, or swimming, and other physical activities such as Zumba or going to the gym.
Aerobic exercise also reduces depression as evidenced by a meta-analysis of 158 studies and a meta-analysis of 92 randomised controlled trials. The research concluded that beneficial effects of exercise are there whether or not people are getting fit.
In other words, exercise boosts mood even if there are no obvious physical results. Other than the physical reasons, exercise also activates one’s sense of accomplishment, mastery, and self-efficacy.
More researches have shown further differentiation of exercise and its effects. In other words, both low-intensity and high-intensity exercises have their different impact on physical and psychological functioning.
For instance, a new study reports that low-intensity exercise, such as walking on a treadmill, stimulates brain networks associated with cognitive control and attention. In contrast, the researchers found out that high-intensity exercise (running) activates brain networks involved in emotional processing.
But both running and walking were associated with an increase in positive mood, according to the research. So, for optimal effect on affect, vigorous exercise is recommended. But to make one initially alert and focused, low-intensity exercise will do. But a combination of both is best depending on the circumstances. What is important is one engages in it.
How long should one exercise? Evidence suggests that 21 minutes of aerobic exercise will bring about the desired effect on mood and thinking. The more consistent, like doing it everyday, the better.
But at least 3 times a week is recommended for 7 weeks. It’s only during this time that you can start experiencing the optimum effect of exercise on your mood. The evidence also suggests that the mood-boosting effect of exercise might only last up to half an hour. So, it is suggested that you incorporate more than one exercise sessions during the day.
Vigorous exercise will also do but should be taken with caution. Long duration might produce an opposite effect when it makes one fatigued and entirely spent out. So, the degree of exercising need to be correspondent to one’s physical condition.
Researchers have found out that exercise increase serotonin in the brain and reduce cortisol (a stress hormone). It also releases endorphins although this is more common with trained athletes who engage in high level activities.
Psychologically, exercise reduce anxiety sensitivity. Anxious people are sensitive to their body functioning, and small aches will be interpreted as terminal already. But exercise provides exposure to these sensations in a safe context, thereby helping break the link between the physical sensations of anxiety and experience of panic.
So, there you are. Let us all take advantage of the free gift and effect of exercising. It does not involve much. Only our deep desire, strong commitment, and the consistency to do it everyday if possible. Unlike the effects of psychotherapy or medication, exercise can make you feel better almost immediately.
So, come on. Let’s sweat it out now!