Blue Line


September 24, 2015  By Stephanie Conn

We all know that exercise improves blood pressure and sugar, weight management and cardiovascular health but many may not know about the link between physical exercise and mental health.

The link is so strong that some studies show that exercise can be just as beneficial as therapy for reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. As a therapist and runner, I am conflicted when I see “Running is cheaper than therapy” on t-shirts, yet I know it to be true.

There are multiple ideas as to how exercise improves our mental health. One explanation is that increased blood flow to the brain activates a part in the brain, the HPA axis, which then affects processes in several other parts, such as those that control emotion and cognitive functions.

Increased blood flow to the brain can improve our ability to respond to stress and boost our mood, motivation and memory.

Exercise assists in reducing cortisol, the stress hormone that contributes to a variety of physical and psychological difficulties.

Some studies show that exercise is just as effective as antidepressants in improving mood. I am not suggesting that you stop taking a prescribed antidepressant because you signed up for a spin class. Those kinds of decisions must be made with the guidance of a health care professional. What I am saying is that I have seen clients be able to taper off medication due to lifestyle changes and the research supports my observations.

Exercise is believed to improve our mental health in many other ways. It boosts our self-esteem and tends to make us feel stronger, fitter and more sociable. Research shows that we feel psychologically stronger when we feel stronger physically. Take weightlifting, for example. Pushing myself to keep going when I want to put the weight down makes me feel like I can also do this in life.

It also feels good to see the gains and to do something that we know is good for us. We get a sense of accomplishment when we complete a workout, improve our speed or increase our strength. All of these transfer to psychological confidence and pride.

Our sociability is improved when we participate in physical activities with others such as group sports, hiking trips or running. When we feel better about ourselves we are also more likely to be sociable which, in turn, improves our mood and mental health.

Research shows that 20-30 minutes of exercise daily for three months reduces anxiety levels, regardless of the source. This included anxiety for persons who had always identified as being “an anxious person” as well as those who were anxious about a current stressor. Interestingly, individuals who suffer from crippling anxiety to the point of activating the fight or flight response or panic attacks also benefit greatly from exercise.

Exercise serves as a form of exposure therapy in that individuals experience bodily sensations similar to the fight-flight response, such as increased heart rate and sweating. If they stick with it over the initial discomfort, their body will respond by activating a calming response. They experience the initial symptoms of panic followed by relief. Repeating this cycle often can actually reduce, if not eliminate, the physical fight-flight response or panic attack experienced outside of dangerous situations.

Exercise can alleviate the physical pain that oftentimes accompanies depression. Serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters produced through exercise, is considered a “feel good” chemical because it improves pain tolerance and mood. Achieving a runner’s high can reduce the likelihood that a person will reach for a bottle or pill to relieve psychological or even physical pain.

Cognitively, exercise contributes to mental alertness – clearly important in policing. This is boosted even more when we get adequate sleep. Yes, you guessed it – exercise also contributes to better sleep. Police work, especially shifts, wreaks havoc on sleep schedules. Exercising produces serotonin, which is linked to the sleep-wake cycle. Some researchers also believe it has a calming effect because it activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which arouses us and then activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to release chemicals that calm us.

Some say that they are too tired to exercise. This presents a dilemma because exercise actually contributes to energy. We are capable of generating our own energy if we will push ourselves when we feel we are too depleted to exercise. There have been times when I felt too tired to exercise and mysteriously “found” my energy at the gym. (I must’ve left it there by mistake). I’ve heard the same from clients who were more energized following a workout than before it.

Furthermore, when we exercise we tend to eat better. It becomes a lifestyle where we don’t want to counteract a good sweat with a bag of donuts. It also makes it easier to give up other counterproductive vices such as cigarettes and alcohol.

Doctors say that a sedentary lifestyle is the new smoking. We know the costs but we struggle to give it up. Starting to exercise or increasing the frequency does not have to be a daunting task or a wholesale shift in our routine. Like anything else, you want to start slow. As little as 10 minutes is enough to get the feel good chemicals going – and if you feel like you could go for another 5-10 minutes, DO IT!

Also, think broadly about what is considered exercise. It’s not just the time spent in the gym or on the running track. It includes walking your dog or playing a sport. I challenge you to commit to regular exercise even if you don’t struggle with anxiety or mood concerns. Think of it as building your mental muscle for future flexing.

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