In the previous week's blog, I addressed ways that diet can affect mental health. This time, we are addressing ways to affect mental health with physical activities. Looking for that runner's high? How about the peace and calm of a restorative yoga class? What about the clear-headedness that comes after a good long walk? These are simple, not always easy, ways to change how you feel by doing something with your body.
In response to physical activities the brain turns on various glands and other responses sending out adrenaline, epinephrine, and others in the case of highly aerobic activities like dance, running, etc. It sends out oxytocin and others in response to calming, relaxing activities such as restorative yoga. The brain also triggers hormones and bio-chemicals in response to things we have no control over physically, but we can make a big dent in taking charge of the brain's responses by choosing what we ingest carefully (see Take Charge of Your Brain with Your Diet!) and what activities we engage in.
Let's start with walking. Walking, for most, is the easiest choice - just you and your walking shoes and you're ready! Other options to add: a pedometer, a buddy, a pet, some music or audio book. Whatever keeps you going on a regular basis (can you get up to 5-6 walks per week-15 minutes minimum?) is a welcome addition, but for best mental health results, leave the audio at home and let your thoughts roam or talk them out with your walking buddy!
Studies show the brain actually works more efficiently when we engage in regular walking. Walking stimulates the brain's neurons and synapses. Walking in the great outdoors has an even greater effect. It's not known why, but a nature walk vs. a city walk boosts mood and makes one stay committed to the walking regimen (I think we release happy hormones when we see the beauty of nature). Walking also seems to engage the emotions. What this tends to result in is that walkers find it easier to face problems, work through challenges, and even face issues with addiction (a study showed a decrease in cravings for smokers), because moods turn hopeful while walking. Even effects on anxiety and depression are becoming well documented (someday to surpass the results of taking prescribed medications, if we can get more funding for non-medication studies). Walking improves energy regulation, so you feel a lift following your walk and tired later when it is time for sleep.
Any vigorous exercise will do the trick for stress relief. And, the best part, is that it takes just 15-20 minutes a day! Stress creates deleterious effects in the cells of the body and exercise protects the cells. You want to get the heart rate up for these effects, get some sweat going - brisk walking, intense cycling, hard laps in the pool, jogging/running, or take the pace up on your dance routine. I like to do intervals. Take a 30 minute walk and do 1 minute at a normal pace and one minute going as quickly as you can or add a slow jog for 1 minute. This makes the time fly by! There is such a thing as runner's high and it isn't just for runner's, other forms of exercise create the endorphin release, but the effects are different for everyone, so experiment on yourself.
Any exercise will increase mood and decrease anxiety and depression symptoms somewhat. The best results come from 30 minutes of moderate activity on all or most days. Look at this like brushing your teeth. You wouldn't go a day or 2 without brushing, right? This is the same maintenance routine. You just assume you are going to do it, no thought, no argument, it is just a part of your life, for good. After just 1 month (the time it takes for most medications to get regulated in your system, as well), you will feel the effects. Then, keep going!
The results from exercise tend to last longer than the results from drugs and because they are a natural response in the body, your system isn't going to adjust and need more or a new version. For those who have used medications for mood disorders, the frustration of changing, tweaking, and experimenting with the doses and the brands is a real concern. Exercise doesn't work that way.
Another benefit of exercise is that those who exercise regularly in the first place have a better chance of NOT having anxiety, depression or other effects of stress affect them later in life. This is because the heart, the lungs, the systems that work to cause some of the discomfort of stress and anxiety, are more efficient. Also, the chemicals and hormones released during exercise that allow for clearer thinking, will then create better responses to stressful events, preventing anxiety and depression.
Now, let's talk yoga. What goes on with yoga is different. Yes, there are forms of yoga that are intense, vigorous and athletic, but many are not or are for just a part of class time. You will get some of the endorphin release and other benefits listed above with these active types of yoga. Because yoga is an experience that when taught well, allows you time to take your mind away from anything except the studio, your body and the poses, stress seems to just slip away.... There's also the theory that the vagus nerve which is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system (turns on the relaxation response) is activated when practicing yoga. Yoga is better than walking for mood improvement in studies. Three yoga classes per week have been shown to create happiness, tranquility, and energy!
Yoga also teaches skills that are incredibly beneficial in regulating mental health. Most classes teach some breathing techniques. Simply learning to pay attention to the breath (mindful breathing) has been shown in study after to study to help even the worst anxiety and depression symptoms, because the breath regulates the nervous system. Other breathing techniques calm or energize or change the energy one feels when practiced.
Yoga also teaches focus. The class usually goes from focusing on various poses, to focusing on a space on the floor for balance, to focusing on a feeling, image, or mantra. All of these teaches one to be in charge of the brain's constant thinking processes. To use different techniques to gain control over thoughts is incredibly powerful for mental health and wellness. Every thought the brain has is triggering a release of hormones which create the feelings you then have. This focus skill can then go further and become the ability to meditate. Meditation is the ultimate way to gain control of thoughts and thought processes.
Yoga teaches relaxation. Every yoga class should have a relaxation session called savasana, not sure it can be a real yoga class without savasana. This time allows a complete release and teaches us to let go in mind and in body without sleeping. It is awareness of nothing and a complete letting go of everything. Learning this skill will keep stress and anxiety at bay anytime!
There is ample evidence out there to back the benefits of exercise in every area of life at this point- physical health improves and mental health improves in many, many ways. So what are you waiting for? Don't worry about a right or wrong way, just do what works for you. Tried yoga and didn't like it? There are literally hundreds of ways yoga can be practiced and taught. Keep trying! Find a form of exercise that keeps you happy. There is something out there for everyone.