Exercise and Mental Health

Wei CHANG, Chair of the Psychological Health Center, Clinical Psychologist

Common sense has always acknowledged the link between exercise and physical health. Only recently has research literature supported a definite relationship between exercise and mental health. More than 100 studies involving thousands of subjects have provided ample evidence that exercise correlates with improvements in mental health, particularly in relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety (Landers, D.).

A recent University of Texas study found that 70% of people who take medication for depression still exhibit its symptoms. However, 28% of those people worked out on a treadmill or stationary bike for 30-45 minutes a week, and their symptoms were eliminated (Madhukar, M.D.). Based on my own clinical observations, people who have been diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety and who follow my recommendation to exercise usually see their symptoms significantly reduced.

How does exercise help depression and anxiety?

Physical exercise releases “feel-good” chemicals called endorphins into the brain. Endorphins usually ease depression and anxiety. Other benefits of exercise include gaining confidence and boosting self-esteem due to physical health/fitness and improved weight management. This, in turn, distracts you from worry and stress and improves your appetite and quality of sleep.

The irony is that when you are depressed, exercise is the last thing you feel like doing. That is why a “prescription” of exercise is a crucial part of psychotherapy treatment. I want my patients to think of exercise as medication that they should take seriously. More often than not, once they start exercising, patients see the benefits immediately.

How much exercise is sufficient?

Although a 15-minute stroll is better than nothing, 30 minutes of any form of moderately vigorous exercise daily, four to five days a week, can significantly help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as offer other health benefits. In order for your brain to release the “feel-good” chemicals, the key is to establish a regular exercise regimen.

How do I start and stay motivated?

  • Figure out what you like to do (biking, swimming, walking, running, tennis, basketball, yoga, climbing up stairs, playing with your children, etc.). It has to be something you enjoy doing.
  • Set realistic goals. Start with less rigorous movements and a shorter duration. Then, move up to a higher level of intensity and increase the duration of your exercise gradually.
  • Make time. If you don’t make time, you will never “find” the time to exercise.
  • Change it up. Change your exercise regimen by doing different activities from time to time. This helps to keep you interested and motivated. Don’t bore yourself. Sometimes, having a partner or friend to exercise with can make it more fun.
  • Find a personal trainer if you need professional support, guidance and discipline.

Compared to other treatments for depression, exercise has no negative side effects and is inexpensive. Although exercise should not replace medication and therapy treatment, its benefits can no longer be ignored. Everyone in every walk of life can use exercise. Get out there, and enjoy yourself.