How Exercise Can Improve Your Mental Health

I call it “the anvil” because it’s a bit like the wrought-iron block that hangs suspended in mid- air before crashing onto Wile E. Coyote’s head. But instead of flattening me into the desert floor while the Road Runner taunts me with a “meep-meep,” my 500-pound anvil slowly bears down on my skull, compressing my spine and pinning me into place.

This is how I describe my depression, a mental-health condition that the World Health Organization estimates affects more than 280 million people worldwide and has been with me for at least two decades. My methods for managing my mood – which frequently plummets during PMS – includes medication and therapy.

Just as important for me in managing my depression, though, is something that seems apt when imagining the condition as a heavy thing to lift: exercise.

“Exercise, in general, is a healthful practice,” said Penny Stern, MD, MPH, chief of preventive and lifestyle medicine at the Katz Institute for Women’s Health. “It is well-established that exercise really does benefit mental health.”

Indeed, studies show that high-intensity exercise releases endorphins, which are the “feel-good” chemicals in the brain that can create a “runner’s high.” Frankly, I typically don’t feel elated until I’m done with a tough run, but I will admit that it’s difficult for me to feel sad when I’m sprinting as hard as I can for 50 yards.

Rigorous exercise isn’t the only kind that provides mental-health benefits, Stern says.

“Moderately intensive exercise on a regular basis can result in the release of endorphins, which act almost like opioids in that they serve as mood-elevators and pain relievers,” she explains. “As a result, routine exercise can also help reduce the risk for depression.”

So long as you’re being active and getting your blood pumping, you can reap the benefits.

“Physical activity that involves cardiovascular conditioning, requiring raising the heart and breathing rates, can take many forms,” Stern says. “Running, walking briskly, biking, and swimming are all forms of aerobic exercise. Even dancing provides an aerobic workout. As long as you are working out with moderate intensity, you can elicit the endorphin effect.”

Experts like Stern recommend 150 minutes per week, which is as little as 20 minutes daily if you exercise each day, or 30 minutes daily if you work out five days a week. “Running, which is admittedly a little harder on the bones and joints, has been found to reduce depression risk. Just 15 minutes a day has been shown to be effective. With walking, you’d need to do about an hour a day to achieve the same effect,” says Stern.

She recognizes that depression can, like the anvil, weigh a person down and make it difficult to move.

“The hardest thing to do, always, is to start,” says Stern. “But once people are able to find the time and motivation to start, they usually do very well.” She suggests finding a friend to partner with as you start pursuing a new exercise program. “Walking together can provide tremendous support for both individuals. And when the endorphin effect kicks in, the good feelings will definitely make you want to continue.”

The positive effects will cascade from there, she says.

“You’ll also enjoy the other benefits of exercise, such as helping to maintain weight at a healthy level, promoting better sleep, and reducing the risk for heart disease and diabetes,” she says. “An added bonus is that routine exercisers are less likely to develop symptoms of dementia.”

The approach that works best for me is both proactive and reactive. Sometimes these activities help me to press the anvil above my head, where it hovers. Other times, I’m able to cast that heavy weight clear off.

“Physical activity and the associated reduction in stress, along with proper nutrition and adequate sleep, can be transformative,” Stern says.

This article originally appeared in The Well by Northwell Health. In this time of information overabundance, much of which is inaccurate, unhelpful, or even difficult to understand, Northwell is on a mission to make a difference as an honest, trusted, and caring partner. The Well connects with consumers to provide them with personalized content that reduces their stress, makes them laugh, and ultimately feel more confident and capable on their health care journey.