By Judy Torel
It is common knowledge that regular exercise benefits the physical body. Improvement of every disease from arthritis to diabetes has been linked to exercise. In recent years, scientific study is finding that mental health conditions also benefit from a frequent and consistent exercise practice. And, not only does exercise help with certain diseases, it can also enhance the more desirable qualities of positive self-esteem and positive mood.
Anxiety disorders are associated with the emergence of negative thoughts typified by worry, self-doubt and apprehension. These thoughts usually emerge when conditions in life tax or exceed a person’s capabilities. Everyone feels anxiety from time to time due to life situations, but when anxiety becomes generalized and longer lasting without a reprieve, it becomes problematic.
To date, there have been six meta-analyses of studies involving exercise and anxiety. A meta-analyses is not just one study, but a compilation of many studies involving the same topics. The results of these studies (which ranged from 1960-1995) concluded that exercise reduces anxiety.
According to the studies, there are some specific conditions that strengthen the positive effects of the exercise on anxiety. For instance, there are larger reductions to anxiety when the exercise is aerobic such as running, swimming and cycling. Aerobic exercise is more powerful in helping anxiety then non-aerobic exercise such as tennis, strength training and pilates. In addition, the exercise needs to be established as a regular habit and must have been practiced for at least 10-15 weeks. The studies also indicated that people who had lower initial fitness levels or higher anxiety levels to start with experienced higher levels of anxiety relief from an exercise program. Symptoms were reduced regardless of age, gender or ethnicity.
The studies indicate that the reduction of anxiety symptoms last about 4-6 hours after an exercise session. The reduction of symptoms is similar in magnitude to other treatments, such as medications and therapy. This is noteworthy, because in addition to the reduction of symptoms, exercise has many other physical benefits that psychotherapy and drug therapy do not produce when used alone.
Depression is a prevalent and increasing problem in contemporary America. Clinical depression affects 2-5 percent of Americans annually. Depression is costly to our health care system because depressed individuals spend 1.5 times more on health care and 3 times more on out-patient pharmacy costs then non-depressed people.
Research on exercise and depression began in the early 1900s. To date, there are more than 100 studies of exercise and depression, and since 1990 there have been five meta-analyses of the data.
The research consistently shows that:
• Both acute (short/intense) and chronic (on-going) depression is significantly reduced by a consistent exercise practice. The effects can begin as early as the first exercise session and last beyond the end of the exercise session. The reduction of depression symptoms is even greater than the reduction found in anxiety symptoms mentioned earlier. As in the anxiety studies, the symptoms were reduced regardless of age, gender or ethnicity.
• Specific exercise conditions (the longer the duration of the exercise sessions, the higher the intensity, and the greater number of days per week for the exercise) were found to be more powerful in the reduction of depression symptoms. The exercise program needs to be followed for at least nine weeks to benefit from the largest anti-depressant effects.
• Exercise was found to be as powerful a therapy for depression as psychotherapy and more powerful then behavioral interventions such as relaxation and meditation.
• Exercise provides positive side effects of physical health benefits, is less costly than other therapies, and is effective in the treatment of depression.
Alzheimer’s and dementia
Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic form of dementia that produces progressive and severe memory loss, and eventually results in death. Many believe that Alzheimer’s is caused by a plaque build-up in the brain; damaging proteins called beta-amyloid peptides are responsible for the plaque.
The Journal of Neuroscience reported in April 2005 that studies on mice found that those subjected to regular exercise on running wheels had significantly fewer plaques and fewer beta-amyloid peptides than mice without running wheels in their cages. Studies on humans, like the one conducted in Honolulu-Asia on 2,257 Japanese-American men between 71-93 years old, conclude that a healthy lifestyle including regular exercise leads to improved cognitive functioning in later life.
According to www.alzheimers.about.com, it is best to establish a regular exercise habit early in life in order to guard against Alzheimer’s and dementia. But, if you’re older that doesn’t mean it’s too late! You are never too old to start exercising as long as you begin conservatively and progress in intensity and duration over time. A good personal trainer can help provide guidelines for a safe, progressive exercise program for seniors.
Positive self-esteem and improved mood
Exercise is not just correlated with improvement in pathological mental health; it has been linked to greater feelings of well-being, improved mood, positive self-esteem, positive body image and improved sleep!
As human beings, we want to do whatever is within our power to feel our best, both physically and mentally. But, I think even more importantly, we want to know how to experience the highest quality of life possible. Regular exercise practiced throughout a lifetime can help us achieve both of these goals.
Judy Torel is a therapist/personal trainer with a Master’s degree in psychology. She is certified through the American College of Sports Medicine as a fitness trainer and works out of Planet Fitness and Deb's Sweat Shop Extension. She can be reached at JTOREL2263@yahoo.com