Around the world, rates of depression and anxiety are at an all-time high. According to the World Health Organization, over 264 million people worldwide are affected by depression. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest, and economic instability, it seems like once we’ve reassured ourselves on one front, another issue comes up. Plus, over 80 percent of low- and middle-income people do not receive treatment for their depression.
While exercise is no substitute for the help of a clinical professional in severe cases, there is also evidence that a regular exercise regimen can benefit mental health. This is because exercise directly affects our brain! Here’s the science you need to know to telegraph your mind some feel-good messages, plus our favorite exercises to perform during social distancing.
How Exercise Affects the Brain
Exercise helps our brain in several ways. Psychology Today reports that even a short walk causes the production of feel-good hormones called endorphins, as well as enkephalins. These help our short-term problems seem more manageable. “The simple act of focusing on exercise can give us a break from current concerns and damaging self-talk,” writes psychologist Sarah Gingell.
In addition, observation of mice has shown researchers that exercise might cause new neurons to form in the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that regulates emotion and supports our memory. Antidepressant medications used over time also stimulate the growth of the hippocampus. That means a habit of exercising might have a similar effect on parts of the brain as taking medicines.
Exercises that Help Depression
Aerobic exercise has been proven in studies to help with depression and mental health. Aerobics increase blood flow to the brain and stimulate the adrenal system, among other effects on the body. The Official Journal of the Association of Medicine and Psychiatry shared a literature review of many studies researching the effect of exercise on depression symptoms. One group of clinically depressed patients walked 20-40 minutes three times per week for six weeks and experienced an improvement in symptoms compared to other groups. Another study focused on cycling which significantly improved symptoms. Overall, studies support that aerobic exercise alleviates depression. Popular forms of aerobics include:
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) shares that walking is the most popular form of exercise and it has grown more popular in recent years. Sixty percent of people attain their recommended aerobic exercise by walking for fun, or to reach a necessary destination, like work. Forty to fifty percent of people will walk to a shop, school, or church if the location is within a mile of their home.
Best Exercises During Social Distancing
What effect does social distancing have on the need for exercise? Bloomberg shared graphs of data collected by Apple, monitoring peoples’ physical activity through their devices. This data showed anywhere from a 50-80 percent decrease in the amount people walked worldwide during the first wave of the pandemic.
However, outdoor exercise isn’t only possible but encouraged during social distancing. Sunlight has major positive effects on mood and gives you necessary Vitamin D. You can still walk, jog, or ride a bike outdoors as long as you maintain 6 feet of distance between yourself and others. Essentially, try to find an isolated place to exercise.
If you will be near others or don’t know if distancing is possible, the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends a face covering. Also, don’t forget the sunscreen! Broad-spectrum sunscreen is important to protect against skin cancer, which affects five million Americans a year. It’s no good to fix one problem while causing another, right?
If you live in an urban area or don’t otherwise want to exercise outdoors, another popular exercise alternative in these times is online workout classes. Whether using YouTube to watch a free video or downloading a subscription app with daily streaming, you can still feel connected to others and get expert coaching on your fitness journey. Even household chores or a private dance party to your favorite tunes can get your heart rate up and help you feel better.
Get a Mix of Physical Activity for Healthy Mind and Body
Sources like the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Health, and Popular Science all agree that 30 minutes of moderate activity or 15 minutes of vigorous activity are needed five days a week to achieve health results. That means 150 minutes on the moderate side, or 75 on the vigorous side. It’s also important to mix aerobics with strength training to improve muscle mass.
Of course, that is just the recommended minimum. As your attitude and mindset adjust with these new habits, you might want to go even further, and that’s great. Just make sure to align your diet and rest periods with your new workouts, and you will be doing the work to banish the blues every day.