Exercises to best manage depression and anxiety

Exercises to best manage depression and anxiety

Are certain exercises better for your mental health?

Young woman with low self-esteem (depression)When diagnosed with a mental health disorder or condition, exercise isn’t usually at the top of the treatment list. Most doctors will recommend a combination of medication (if applicable) and lifestyle changes in a treatment plan, which includes exercise recommendations and better nutritional habits.

Exercise is as good for your mental health as it is for your physical body. It is a good idea to get into good workout habits if you have conditions such as depression or anxiety. Some exercises can play a key role in getting the better of symptoms. The physical and mental components of the body work hand-in-hand, and influence each other too. When we take better care of one aspect of our bodies, we take better care of the entire system.

Chances are, if you’ve been diagnosed with either of these conditions, your doctor has recommended you try some form of exercise to help alleviate your symptoms and improve your mood overall. When in doubt, consult your doctor and ask about anything you have on your mind. It’s important to remember that exercise will not replace any other portion of your treatment plan and isn’t to be regarded as a ‘cure’ for your condition. It’s one working part that will help your overall well-being.

When you exercise, chemicals in the brain are better stimulated. Exercise can help elevate feelings of enthusiasm and excitement, which will give your overall mood a bit of a boost. Research has shown that exercise does help to reduce stress levels and promote better sleep, something that often plagues someone with depression or anxiety.

Some activities have been noted as better than others to alleviate symptoms and help to better manage a condition. The most difficult part may merely be getting started. Once you establish a routine and begin to feel the positive effects, it’s more than likely you’ll keep it up.

Why is exercise good for you?

Regular exercise and activity can have some very healthy benefits. These include:

  • The release of feel-good brain chemicals (neurotransmitters, endocannabinoids and endorphins) which help to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • An increase in body temperature which can have a calming effect on a person suffering for these conditions.
  • The reduction of immune system chemicals, which alleviate symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Group of runners on a suburban street (social skills development)

Some of the emotional and psychological benefits of exercise and activity include:

  • Self-confidence: Once exercise begins to show physical improvements and a person feels a sense of accomplishment having achieved a goal, self-confidence most certainly increases. Once the body is in better shape, a person may begin to feel increasingly better about themselves too.
  • A boost in social skills: Many exercise activities can be done alone or with groups of individuals with like-minded interests. Exercise offers a great opportunity to meet others and fine-tune your social skills. Exercise can also get you outdoors. Even if all you do is walk around your neighbourhood, exchanging a friendly smile with a passer-by can certainly lift your mood too.
  • Alleviating worries: For symptoms of consistent worry, exercise activity can be a highly positive distraction. Constantly worrying triggers cycles of negative thought patterns that essentially feed mental conditions like depression and anxiety. Exercise breaks the cycle with positive effects.
  • Improving coping skills: Most often, exercise promotes routine behaviours that don’t lean into negative consequences, such as drinking alcohol to alleviate feelings of sadness. Healthier routines promote better coping skills for a more positive and productive lifestyle.

Is it better to engage in regular (general) physical activities or develop a structured exercise programme?

By definition, physical activity can be anything that contracts muscles and allows the body to use up energy, such as walking or doing a little gardening. Exercise can be defined as a planned and structured series of body movements (higher intensity level) that contributes to improving or maintaining overall physical fitness. This includes activities that get the heart pumping faster, such as running, weight lifting or playing sports such as tennis or basketball.

Any activity, even if it’s merely washing your car, that gets you out of bed or off the couch will count in your favour and improve your mood on some level, as long as you make an effort to positively engage with the activity and prevent yourself from dwelling on negativity or your condition’s symptoms.

You can increase your levels of activity in a variety of simple ways – bypass the elevator and take the stairs when you’re out and about, consider biking to the shops if you live close-by or park your car a little further away so that you can deliberately fit in a short walk. Every little bit makes a difference.

Getting motivated

Getting started may be the most difficult part for some, and staying motivated for others. Starting anything new is often daunting for most. It’s all too easy to find comfort in making excuses and developing a negative habit of sticking to those rather than committing to a positive plan for your wellbeing.

Any level of success any human being has ever achieved started somewhere and all took a leap into unchartered territory. You can too. The most important thing to remember is that you are in control, so the more positive you are, the better the outcome will be.

To overcome the challenge of getting off the starting block, you can use the following steps to get you moving in the right direction:

  • Decide on an activity: The best kind of activity is one you are most likely to enjoy doing. Think about things to do which you like. These are the types of activities you’ll most likely stick to and commit yourself to doing regularly. These can range from gardening for an hour or two in the late afternoon to a quick neighbourhood jog, early in the morning before work.
  • Doctor talking to her male patient (therapy / counselling)Talk to your mental health care provider: By keeping your doctor in the loop, he or she can help to guide and support you through your activity goals. He or she can also factor your
    favoured activities into your overall treatment plan, ensuring that you are able to live a lifestyle that gives you maximum opportunities to get the better of your condition. It’s important to be 100% sure that your chosen activity is safe for you and what intensity level will best benefit you. This is especially important if you’re taking any medication. It’s also important to understand that exercise may improve your mood and help you to feel better, but it should not be used to substitute your therapy sessions or medication.
  • Adjust your attitude: If you think of exercise as another “should” thing to incorporate into your life, you’re setting yourself a stone to trip over. If you have to labour through something, realistically, you’re already anticipating a negative effect, such as failure. This won’t prove beneficial for you. Exercise and activity is one other important tool for your well-being, just like your therapy sessions and medications. It shouldn’t be regarded as a chore. It’s going to help you get better.
  • Understand any limitations or barriers: You may be self-conscious about exercising in public. Perhaps money is tight. Things that may stop you in your tracks and think twice about committing to a specific activity can easily become excuses. You may even be able to easily convince yourself they’re completely reasonable and understandable ones too. There’s a way around many limitations – if you’re self-conscious, exercise at home instead of at the gym. There are plenty DVDs, online videos and free mobile apps that you can conveniently use without a pair of peepers ogling your activity. If motivation is a problem for you, consider organised group activities, such as weekly running groups in safe environments. You’ll all be there for similar reasons and can easily motivate one another, and develop social, friendly relationships.
  • Notebook with a blank list of goals and a cup of coffeeSet goals to accomplish for yourself: You need not think regular exercise will require being on the same level as a cyclist training for the Tour de France. Your primary goal, at the start, may not be anywhere near training for a major endurance race. Your goals need to be realistic for YOU and serve your purpose of well-being. Somewhere down the line, participating in the London, New York, Boston or Comrades Marathon, can be a goal to work towards if you enjoy endurance running. At the start, you will need to set goals that you can actually achieve, such as walking for 30 minutes, working in the garden for an hour or setting out on an organised hike for an hour. Be reasonable and your goals will be attainable.
  • Be prepared for possible obstacles or setbacks: Some days, things will fall through. Remember that it happens to everyone. You may have planned a quick jog after work and by the time you leave the office, the heavens opened up. Weather can spoil an outdoor activity. Having to work a little late can too. It’s just one day. One setback, every once in a while, shouldn’t mean the end of your routine. Several in a row will make it more difficult to get back into, but one or two can easily be overcome the next day.

Top exercise activities for mental well-being

  • Happy men and women runners training outdoors by the seasideBreak a sweat: A cardio or aerobic workout tops the list when it comes to exercise activity that best benefits a mental condition. At least 20 to 30 minutes most days of the week will help to boost emotional, mental and physical well-being. Any runner will tell you that there’s definitely truth to the “runner’s high” (a sense of euphoria as a result of endorphins released in the brain following sustained physical activity). Once a runner has crossed a certain threshold of exertion during a running workout, the body’s natural morphine chemical (endorphins) are released in the brain, producing a sense of joy and well-being, as well as reducing sensations of pain. Running torches mega calories which helps you to lose weight, lowers your risk of heart disease, and significantly reduces food cravings (a bonus if you’re an emotional eater and reach for all the wrong things in an attempt to “cheer up” symptoms of your condition). The repetitive motion of running can also have a meditative effect on your brain, which in combination with the “feel-good” neurotransmitters, will have a significant impact on improving your mood. Researchers have found that this effect is a very powerful benefit for people suffering depression or anxiety and works similarly to anti-depressant medications, promoting the development of new neurons in the brain. Added benefits are improved sleep, memory and reduced stress levels. You don’t have to run, if it’s not your thing. Walking can provide just as much benefit as an aerobic exercise. And it’s inexpensive. A good, comfortable pair of shoes with adequate support, and you’re set. Start slowly and gradually increase your walks according to time engaged with the activity. Hiking combines good exercise with being outdoors (often in nature) which has the added benefit of calming the mind and lowering levels of stress. With that comes improved memory and feeling less anxious. If that doesn’t excite you, get in touch with your inner child and get yourself a trampoline (yes, why not?). It’s a super simple activity of quick, repetitive movements (bouncing) - just a few minutes will get the endorphins flowing.
  • Man and woman with dumbbells flexing muscles in the gymMuscle up! Strength training can also give you a boost. It’s all about mastery and control. To successfully perform weight training or strength training exercises, you need to be able to concentrate and give the activity your full attention. This helps a person to focus while working on physical aspects of their body. It’s important not to jump into doing too much too quickly. Start slowly and make use of a personal trainer if it’s something you really enjoy doing, getting an elevated sense of achievement in defining muscle in your body. A trainer can help you to perform exercises correctly, and reduce the risk of potential injuries.
  • Woman doing qi gong tai chi exercise at homeGet in touch with your peaceful side: Symptoms of depression and anxiety can be stressful. Regular yoga sessions can serve as a fantastic antidepressant, calming the mind by breaking the repetitive pattern of negative thoughts or anger, promoting mindfulness and overall neurotic symptoms, making you more aware of your breathing (it’s physically difficult to be anxious when you’re breathing deeply), as well as increasing physical strength (as a result of stretching techniques and core strengthening) and improving your balance. It is a good idea to join an existing class with a qualified instructor if you’re new to the activity – some poses can be difficult at first, but will practice you’ll be less likely to injure yourself. Tai Chi is another activity with slow, gentle movements that is beneficial to those managing symptoms of depression and anxiety. It can also be a social activity where an organised group session can help to improve your social skills and keep you motivated.
  • Man with a labrador retriever dog walking outdoorsGet outdoors: One of the biggest trouble spots for a person suffering depression or anxiety is the reactive ‘need’ to hide away and become sedentary. The important thing is to recognise that that kind of behaviour is not getting the better of your condition. It’s feeding it. So, get outdoors and soak in a little sunshine. Sunshine stimulates serotonin levels in the body. You can choose to focus on taking care of your garden, or you can engage in a little game of football with friends or family. Anything that gets you moving, helps you focus and takes you away from deep, dark corners, will surely do you the world of good.

How much activity is enough?

There are differing opinions on this when it comes to incorporating exercise as part of a ‘lifestyle treatment plan’. This question is better answered taking certain factors into consideration, such as age and overall physical condition and not just the general symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Believe it or not, children as young as pre-school age can be diagnosed with conditions like depression (some even as young as 3 years old!). Research is still being done with regards to developing effective treatment plans for such little beings, especially when it comes to medication.

Exercise activity is one thing you can encourage in your child should they show depressive symptoms.
It can be argued that what’s physically good for you in general, is likely enough to help you through your symptoms of anxiety or depression, at any age. Many agree that at least 30-minutes (or more) of exercise activity a day, 3 to 5 days a week can significantly improve symptoms of anxiety or depression.

If getting started or maintaining activity is difficult at first, aim for at least 10 to 15-minutes at a time, and gradually increase from there. Every little bit makes a difference. The important thing is to get started, but the real benefit of exercise for any mental condition is to maintain it over the long term.

Once you decide on activities you’re most likely to enjoy, set yourself attainable goals and make the effort to achieve them.

General activity guidelines which can also apply to anyone managing a mental condition include:

Activity guidelines for children under the age of 5

Toddler diving and swimming in pool (underwater)

Generally speaking, once a child is able to walk and run on their own, daily physical activity is important. At least 180 minutes (or 3 hours), spread out throughout each day, is a good rule of thumb. This can include activity that is based indoors or outdoors.

For a little one activity is light and should include things like standing up, moving around, active play (climbing, dancing, bike riding, water games and swimming, ball games, hide and seek, and chasing types of activities), rolling about, hopping, skipping, jumping and a little run around too.

Children under 5 years of age shouldn’t be allowed to be inactive for long periods of time, with the exception of time they spend napping or sleeping.

Activity guidelines for children between the ages of 5 to 18

Young teenager rollerblading

Basic levels of health can be achieved with at least 60 minutes (1 hour) of physical activity on a daily basis. This can range from moderate activities to the more vigorous variety. Strength building or training (3 days a week) should also form part of a regular requirement. One minute of vigorous activity provides similar health benefits to two minutes of a moderate variety.

Moderate activities can include things like playground activities, cycling or biking, walking, riding a scooter, skateboarding or rollerblading. More vigorous activity can include exercises such as tennis, running, martial arts, gymnastics and sports such as football or soccer. Vigorous activity, generally, promotes stronger bones and muscles, regulates blood pressure and blood sugar levels, maintains a healthy weight, and can also elevate levels of self-esteem, especially when a person feels a sense of accomplishment doing a specific activity.

Activity guidelines for adults between the ages of 19 to 64

Couple gardening at home

Moderate aerobic activity and strength exercises (daily) are important for the bodies of adults too. About 150 minutes (a week) of moderate aerobic activity is a good rule of thumb and can include activities such as fast-paced walking, water aerobics, hiking or cycling. If group activities appeal to you, give volleyball or basketball a go too for a great aerobic workout.

Moderate activity elevates your heart rate, increases your breathing speed and makes you feel warmer. When this happens, you know you’re getting in a good workout.

Strength exercises work all the major muscles in the body, especially the chest, abdomen, shoulders, arms, legs, back and hips). A good rule of thumb for strength training is to try and get in about 2 or 3 workouts a week. You can use weights and resistance bands to enhance your muscle-strengthening workouts, or get stuck in to some serious gardening (digging and shovelling) or try yoga or Pilates classes.

Great vigorous activities to try include jogging or running, swimming, biking, tennis, skipping rope, aerobics, dancing, martial arts or group sports such as hockey, rugby and football or soccer.

Activity guidelines for seniors, 65 years of age and older

Group of seniors enjoying a dance class together

If a person has no other health concerns that limit their ability to move around, at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity and strength exercises, 2 or 3 times a week, should be enough to keep one healthy and fit.

If you feel up to it, mix things up and combine moderate (walking, ballroom dancing, water aerobics, or canoeing) and vigorous activity (jogging, swimming, biking, tennis and more energetic dance styles) each week, along with strength training exercises (such as those that involve stepping and jumping or yoga and Pilates) which work all the major muscle groups in the body. Break up sedentary habits (long periods of sitting) to help reduce weakness in the legs, as well as improve co-ordination and balance.


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