“I run for my mental health, and because murder damages lives.”
There are many reasons people start an exercise program, with weight loss being the most prominent. However, for others, whether you started an exercise program to drop a few pounds, or loved the way it made you feel when you first started out, physical activity becomes the number one method to deal with anxiety and low mood. Rob Krar, an ultra-runner living with clinical depression, noticed the powerful effects of running on mental health as part of a comprehensive treatment regime.
There are clear benefits of living a physical activity life, but what does the peer-reviewed research say about the effects of exercise on mental health?
Exercise and the Physiological Response to Anxiety
Everyone experiences anxiety at one time or another. Most attempt to avoid anxiety, but in fact, the physiologic anxiety response is desired. First, the “Fight or Flight” response is built into our organic make-up to protects us from danger. When presented with a sudden and unexpected startling event, adrenalin is flushed from the adrenal cortex into our blood stream, causing us to either kick our way out of the threatening situations, or run for our lives.
Second, a low grade sense of anxiety is also desirable. Think of anxiety on a continuum. The furthest end, “distress,” is a maladaptive crippling sense of anxiety that prevents us from moving forward. The opposite is also a problem, “zero distress,” where you experience no sense of urgency about anything (you simply don’t care). The adaptable desired state is somewhere in the middle, a state called “eustress.” In essence, a low to moderate level of stress is motivating – it urges us to pay the bills, drive safely, and get out the door on a beautiful day.
Theory has a significant voice, but what about the peer-reviewed literature? In a study by Smits and Otto (Depression and Anxiety, 2008), participants prone to panic, were less likely to experience ongoing panic attacks when engaged in a regular exercise program.
It was concluded that exercise induced many of the same physiologic responses in a panic attach (sweating, increased heart rate, etc.), and that exercise may, in fact, re-teach our response to those same symptoms. Over time, the sense of impending doom learned as the antecedent in previous panic episodes, is replaced by a sense of needing to move.
Exercise and Dysphoric Mood
There is broad meta-analytic support showing the positive effects of exercise on mental health and improved mood. Early research suffered from methodological challenges. However, today, there is a large body of research utilizing experimental design (over the hazards of correlation) in regards to direct outcomes of improved mood from an engaged exercise program.
In one meta-analytic study conducted by North et al. (Exerc Sport Sci Rev., 1990), overall mean scores on mood indicators for those participating in studies utilizing physical activity, saw an overall decrease by more than half. This appeared to be the case for studies examining those with mood disorders secondary to a medical condition (hemodialysis, post-myocardial infarction, etc.), and those with clinical depression as a primary illness.
Exercise and Mental Toughness
Runners understand better than most the powerful nature of mental toughness, both during training season, and while running long distance events such as a marathon. Running long distances is a mental exercise in toughness. Runners learn the mantra “one foot in front of the other,” in an effort to push through the pain. Self-doubt is always running side-by-side the long distance runner, especially towards the end. The question is whether or not it is allowed to be master.
Strenuous exercise can also be thought of as appealing to our natural addiction to endorphins, the body’s endogenous opioid delivery system. However, unlike shooting heroin, the effects of endorphins come later, and typically after exercise. Thus, the runner must learn delay of gratification, knowing that the positive effects of the challenge come later.
The ability to push through pain is actually a psychological response to a sophisticated hormonal reward system.
Exercise and Self-efficacy
Self-efficacy is the understanding that one has an effect on the outcomes in their life. In particular, if you choose a specific intervention, and you have a positive effect from utilizing that intervention, you build a sense of confidence that, by choosing the right interventions, you effect positive change.
If you do not get the desired effect, you don’t feel a sense of failure, but instead look at the intervention you chose, make adjustments, and try again. Self-efficacy is a measurable effect, much more reliable than discussing self-esteem.
Engagement in an exercise program promotes a strong sense of self-efficacy. Once you understand that lifestyle change is a lifelong endeavor, you start to see that every change made towards a better “you,” is leading you closer to the direction you desire.
There is power in physical activity. Society is quickly becoming void of movement, thus encouraging a much more anxious and dysphoric state of being. It is critical to find ways to stay active in a society built on instant gratification, with technology being both our worst enemy, and friend in this regard. Movement is critical for both our physical and mental well-being.