The Link Between Physical Fitness and Mental Health

When it comes to our mental health, many of us are aware of the basics: therapy, meditation, medication, mindfulness, relaxation, and leisure. But did you know that nutrition and exercise play a HUGE part in your mental wellbeing? Deepwater Counseling interviewed local fitness and life coach Alex McBrairty at A-Team Fitness and asked him about the link between fitness and mental health. Alex, who has a background in psychology, had plenty to say and even offered a few exercises* and steps to help you get started. Q: Based on your knowledge of both psychology and physical health, what are some of the connections between physical health and mental health? A: Physical health improves learning. The hippocampus is the region of the brain responsible for long-term memory and spatial navigation. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce the rate of shrinkage of both the hippocampal and temporal lobes of the brain, leading to improved memory later in life (and reduced rates of Alzheimer’s). Physical health helps reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. While the exact mechanisms remain unclear, exercise can improve mood and decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. Cardiovascular forms of exercise (i.e. running, swimming, biking, etc.) were originally shown to be the most beneficial for relieving stress and improving mood (at a duration of at least 20 minutes). However, recent research suggests that resistance training is likely just as beneficial on reducing symptoms. Physical health helps maintain and regenerate nerve cells. Exercise increases the function of the Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which is a protein that creates the protein responsible for the survival of neurons and their growth, maturation, and maintenance. Neurons are responsible for sending and receiving signals to and from the brain, and are responsible for interpreting information from our environment and coordinating movement. Regular exercise improves the function of both neurons and BDNF. Physical health boosts “feel-good” hormones. Exercise increases production of endorphins, a hormone produced by the body that is responsible for reducing pain and can cause a “euphoric” feeling in the body. Additionally, some studies have found a difference in endorphin levels between trained and untrained individuals. The response is greater at higher overall intensities suggesting that as our performance improves we develop an increased capacity for extreme levels of stress. Q: Why is exercise SO important when it comes to the mental health of an individual? A: Exercise is an easy, natural, cost-effective means to achieve a number of mental health benefits. Along with the benefits stated above, additional psychological benefits include improved self-esteem and self-efficacy, as well as improved social support in some circumstances. Q: At the very least what should a person be doing per day and how will that affect their mental health? A: Research suggests that two to six hours of physical activity every week is an optimal range for experiencing the mental health benefits of exercise. There is some flexibility into how it can be completed. For example, this can be split up into 30-minute chunks, three to five days per week, for individuals who find it hard to commit an hour or more to exercise on any given day. However, daily physical activity can boost energy and mood throughout the day. Additionally, in most cases some exercise is always better than none (even if it falls below this two-hour threshold). Even 10 minutes of daily physical activity that elevates the heart rate or challenges your muscles – or a combination of the two – will help you reap some benefits. Q: How do group fitness activities benefit a person's mental health? A: Group fitness classes will not only provide all of the physiological benefits associated with physical activity and mental health, but can provide some additional benefits as well. The most notable of which is that group fitness classes can provide an additional support network. Misery loves company, and many group fitness class participants develop lasting relationships with each other. I saw this among participants in classes that I taught. They started together as strangers, but after a few weeks many of them became close friends, often offering support during times of hardship and sharing in celebration during times of triumph – both in and outside of class. Not only does it help create a new support network, but it also creates a support network of people actively trying to take care of themselves. Being in that environment can help influence people to adopt the mindset of self-care. Additionally, in some cases I’ve observed, group fitness classes have helped individuals struggling with anxiety to overcome some of their fears. For example, I once had a client start with me in one of my group programs. Her first class I could tell she was visibly anxious being in a workout with six to eight other people. At multiple points during the workout she had to excuse herself to the bathroom to collect herself. After a few months she became one of the most popular people in the class, becoming a vocal participant and engaging in the banter that often occurred between me and the participants. Not only that, she quickly became my go-to person for helping to acclimate the “newbies” that came into the class at later dates. Q: What are the best exercises for mental health? A: Aerobic exercise in the form of running, swimming, biking, and walking, as well as strength training utilizing big muscle groups, have both been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in clinically diagnosed individuals and the general population. Some research suggests the benefits are greater in clinically diagnosed individuals. However, it seems all forms of physical exercise can improve mental health. In regards to specific exercises, it appears pretty much any exercise that elevates the heart rate and utilizes big muscle groups will provide the intended effects. Walking seems to be the best choice to help with reduction in chronic stress. Chronic stress is characterized by chronically elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, and regular, intense physical activity acutely elevates cortisol levels. For individuals who already suffer from chronic stress, more intense exercise may actually exacerbate the problem. Walking, however, has been shown to help reduce cortisol levels in the body without spiking an acute cortisol response. Q: Can you recommend a few exercises that can easily be done at home that we can share with our clients? A: The easiest exercises that can be done at home, requiring no equipment, include the following: Aerobic:
  1. Walking outside (walking the dog is another great option!)
  2. Going for a jog
Resistance Training: A basic bodyweight routine that includes the following (Click to watch video demonstrations of each exercise):
  1. Bodyweight squats
  2. Push-ups (or modified push-ups)
  3. Bodyweight floor rows
  4. Lunges
  5. Jumping Jacks
  6. Plank Holds (or modified plank holds)
Complete one set of 10 repetitions of each exercise with minimal rest between exercises. Repeat the entire circuit two to three times. Q: Are there any exercises for a person with limited mobility that will benefit their physical and mental health? A: Walking is always a great, low-impact option that almost anyone can participate in. Additionally, swimming is another great option for individuals with specific limitations and who have access. (Swimming is very easy on the joints.) For individuals who want to participate in a strength training routine, but have limited mobility, I would suggest seeing a professional trainer (like myself) to evaluate and appropriately design a program that is suitable for them. -By Annen Weber, LLPC *Always check with your doctor before starting any fitness routine.