Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a startling 4 out of 10 people have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, as compared to 1 out of 10 in 2019. Contributing to the rise in mental health concerns during this time is the change to everyone's routine (e.g., childcare, nutrition, wellness, exercise) forced on them by the virus.
Strength training not only builds muscle, boosts strength, and burns fat, but it has a considerable positive impact on our daily mindset. In fact, exercising of all types—aerobic, resistance training, swimming, yoga—provides real benefits to the brain and our ability to persevere through life's challenges.
Improved Mood and Increased Energy
Depression is a mood disorder that contributes to feeling a considerable amount of sadness and apathy. A recent study from the Journal of Psychology found noticeable improvements in participants' moods following a single session of exercise.
For the lifters out there who aren't sure if completing a single workout is really worth it, the evidence shows it can shift attitude, mindset, and mood in a positive way. Even more promising are the results from a study published in The American Journal of Epidemiology that showed adults who participated in a regular physical activity program had reduced rates of both long-term and acute depression, regardless of their age, sex, ethnicity, financial situation, body mass index, and numerous other factors.
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Similar to depression, anxiety-related disorders have skyrocketed over the past decade. Anxiety, by definition, is a mental health condition that causes one to feel excessive worry, unease, and nervousness over a particular situation or unknown circumstance.
Unequivocally, exercise has been found to benefit anxious individuals. A 2020 study from the journal Scientific Reports found that resistance training reduced symptoms of anxiety among young adults within the first week of training. Additionally, a 2017 meta-analysis from Sports Medicine found that resistance training improved anxiety symptoms among healthy participants along with participants with a mental or physical illness.
The bottom line is that staying consistently active will lead to changes to your body and mind that can help hedge against both anxious and depressive thoughts and feelings.
Gaining a Larger Sense of Purpose
Taking control of your schedule and planning time to resistance train or do other vigorous exercise can, in and of itself, give someone a sense of accomplishment. So much of our work and social lives involve technology that getting away from computer and phone screens and engaging in exercise provides new perspectives.
For former athletes whose competitive days ended for one reason or another, a sense of a loss of purpose is quite common. One such former athlete told us one of the most beneficial coping mechanisms for the "lost" feelings she was having was her exercise routine. Consistent exercise made her feel healthy again and, to her surprise, also helped her rediscover her inner strength. "It made me begin to see my future in a clearer way," she explained. "It helped me to continue to define myself as an athlete, which I was afraid I had lost."
Developing healthy habits around exercise usually requires incremental progress, and motivation tends to gradually increase after you start your training program. For those who think they need motivation to start, it's important for them to realize it tends to come after they get started, not before. Since the research doesn't yet discuss which type of exercise has a greater impact on mental health, the current prescription is to move for about 20-30 minutes a day, three days a week.
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Better Sleep Quality and Improved Recovery
Sleep is essential for physical and mental recovery. Good quality sleep helps the brain process emotional information. Research shows that exercise improves sleep quality and overall sleep satisfaction. A systematic review from the European Journal of Physiotherapy found that moderate exercise was very effective in improving sleep quality in both young and older populations. In addition, research says that moderate exercise increases the amount of slow-wave sleep we get, which is the part of our sleep when our brain rejuvenates and processes information.
Additionally, when we experience good quality, deep sleep, growth hormones are also released. These hormones help stimulate muscle growth and repair, bone building, and fat burning. Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, leads to the body's muscles recovering more slowly, and also lowers mood and increases the release of cortisol, the stress hormone.
We know that exercise can play a multifaceted role in benefiting someone who is experiencing depression and/or anxiety. It is an integral part of not only symptom relief, but it can also help you sleep better, which in turn helps the brain process and manage emotions and situations more efficiently and effectively.
For resources regarding anxiety and depression, visit the website of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America: https://adaa.org/
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help. Call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit their website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.