Much has been written about the benefits of aerobic exercise and I heartily agree with all of it. The physical benefits to heart health, lowering high blood pressure, and the positive effects on diabetes and arthritis cannot be denied. But there are also great benefits for those suffering from mental ailments like anxiety and depression. Regular exercise that gets your body moving and heart pumping stimulates your brain, releasing feel-good endorphins, natural cannabis-like brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being. The question is why?
Anxiety and depression often go together even though they seem to be opposite responses of a person to his environment. Anxiety is fear, more specifically fear of the future. Thinking about a future event can ignite the fearful imagination and trigger an anxiety response, which is an increased heartbeat, sweating, and obsessive negative thoughts. This state of anxiety then stops you from taking the action and the result is depression, a heavy feeling that results in not wanting to do anything and retreat from the world.
How can exercise combat this? The first thing is that exercise puts you squarely in the present. When your muscles are straining to lift a weight, you don’t have the energy to ruminate about a possible future disaster. And when your lungs are filling up with oxygen and your body is moving in a rhythmic manner, your mind is concentrating on the next step, not the next day. As we say in the personal growth field, “Get out of your head and into your body”.
Someone who is anxious or depressed often will retreat from the world and isolate because it feels safer than risking the perceived danger of going out and doing the thing that is triggering so much fear. Going out to exercise, breaks that isolation and puts you in touch with other people in a non-threatening manner. Seeing the sun shining, the blue sky, and the leaves on the trees blowing in the wind takes your mind off the obsession of your mind and gives you the break you need to reset your mood and start a cycle of positive thoughts and the feelings that follow.
Anyone who has suffered from a ‘clinical depression’ knows how devastating that can be and he or she definitely needs professional medical attention. But going out to exercise is something he can do for himself and it acts to take the edge off the anxiety and depression. The illusion that fills the depressed or anxious mind is that this is the only reality and it will last forever. This is untrue and taking 30 minutes time out to work his body will show the depressed man that what he thought was real and hopeless, is only a subjective mood that can be changed by his initiative.
As I mentioned above, one of the results of depression and anxiety is social isolation. If the exercise regimen includes sociability, that is even better. Clubs exist for hiking, biking, and running that combine social interaction and exercise. One of the reasons so many people go to aerobics classes at their local gym is that it puts them in touch with other people that they can talk to before and after the workout.
The important thing to know when starting to exercise is to start out slowly and build up the time and repetitions gradually. This will ensure the you don’t strain your muscles and become discouraged. Better to do a little every day than a lot on one day. If you are lifting weights, it is better to do that every other day. Aerobic exercise like running or biking can be every day starting at ten minutes and working up to thirty minutes. An important part of exercising is that it should be fun and not just another thing on your to-do list. Enjoy!