Exercise for anxiety and depression
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Can we talk about exercise and anxiety, which many of us are feeling these days?
“Exercise is a fantastic way to reduce anxiety. Because neuropeptide Y, increases with activity, you usually get a temporary break from worry at the end of every workout.
It’s a factor of resiliency. It calms the nervous amygdala, the area of the brain that detects danger and raises our alertness level. With the pandemic, our amygdala has been on high alert for the past few years, triggering an almost continual stress reaction.
Chronic stress causes our minds to become extremely afraid, resulting in persistent anxiety. Exercise helps to calm us down by upregulating neuropeptide Y, which soothes the nervous amygdala, and reduces fear and hypervigilance.”
Any particular type of exercise?
The best part is that modest to moderate activity, such as strolling, is sufficient.
According to research from my lab, this type of exercise reduces anxiety immediately after your workout and then reduces anxiety even more and for longer if you continue to exercise.
It appears that 30 minutes of this type of exercise three times per week is sufficient. Walking, cycling, swimming, and dancing are just a few of the activities that are effective.
What about more intense workouts?
When it comes to highly intensive exercise and anxiety, you need to be cautious. You’re already stressed if you’re experiencing anxiety. A high-intensity exercise is a form of stress as well. However, our bodies only have one stress response in general.
So, when you exercise vigorously, you add tremendous physical stress to the tension your body is already experiencing, and it may all become too much.
I was training for a triathlon and did a lot of high-intensity workouts right before the pandemic.
However, after the epidemic began, I was under so much emotional stress that I was unable to complete those workouts. As a result, I took a step back. I would advise folks that if they are already stressed out, extended, hard exercise may not be the best solution.”
What would you recommend people do instead?
Aim for a level of difficulty that seems comfortable to you, such that your heart rate rises but does not race.
For many folks, that means going for a brisk stroll around the park or around the block.
Does exercise help in the same ways against depression?
Depression was once thought to be caused by a shortage of serotonin in the brain, which antidepressants cure.
However, the medications do not function well for certain persons with depression, most likely because serotonin is not their problem.
Many of us who study depression now believe that inflammation, which is linked to stress, is a factor in their condition.
Inflammation damages bodily cells, triggering an immune response and escalating inflammation, which can then spread to the brain and impact mood.
For those individuals, exercise may be the medicine they require, as it aids in the reduction of inflammation.
When people who haven’t reacted to antidepressants start exercising, they frequently see a considerable improvement in their symptoms, according to research.
How much exercise are we talking about?
One study compared 150 minutes of moderate to strenuous exercise per week, which is the normal exercise recommendation for physical health, with a fraction of that amount. Both groups gained equally.
So far, it appears that the exercise prescription for mental health is less stringent than that for physical health, which is a great bonus.
In terms of helping to potentially combat depression, do you think the exercise intensity matters?
It could. A few years ago, we did research on healthy college students who were under a lot of stress due to their upcoming final exams. For 30 minutes three times a week, some of them cycled stationary bikes moderately, while others conducted shorter, more strenuous intervals.
The third set of people did nothing at all. Students who hadn’t worked out for six weeks showed signs of moderate to severe depression, which had appeared out of nowhere and was most likely brought on by their high levels of scholastic pressure.
In contrast, the students who had been exercising moderately had lower levels of stress and inflammation than those who hadn’t.
It’s intriguing to me that extreme exercisers show signs of greater stress, both physically and mentally.
Moderate exercise may be the most effective for mental well-being.
You talk frankly in your book about your own bouts of anxiety, stress, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, including after the birth of your daughter and, later, your divorce. Did exercise help you cope?
It’s the key. Mental illness may happen to anyone, even people who seem to be handling things well.
For myself and many other individuals, life upheavals, like divorce and motherhood, may be very stressful.
After my divorce, I desperately needed something to redirect my life.
And I knew how potently exercise, as a stimulus, affects the brain. Someone suggested triathlons.
I was still biking then. So, I added in the running and swimming.
And qualified for the World Championships?
Yes, in the long run. But it was a long process. Now I’m out of shape because of the epidemic, and I’ll have to start training from scratch. As a matter of fact, that’s a good thing in itself. During moments like this, I find that exercise provides a sense of comfort. After a good workout, it’s easy to believe in the future. You have the impression that everything is once again in its proper place. And that’s something to behold.