Let’s all take a field trip back to Kindergarten for just a moment. No, not for the thrill of getting to the other side of the monkey bars for the first time, but for a basic anatomy lesson. Where is your brain? Right, it’s in your head. Now, can you tell me where your head is? Correct, it’s situated at the top of your body.
If this is something that we learned way back in our days of coloring and learning to write our names, how is it that we’ve forgotten that our brain is part of our body and what we do to one can affect the other?
Why is it that nutrition and fitness are ignored as part of mental health treatment? If we want a six-pack, we know that we must work for it through a balanced nutrition regime and a committed and targeted ab routine. (1) Yet, if we want to reduce our stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression, we are immediately drawn to taking pills without any reflection as to why these things might be afflicting us in the first place.
Observational studies have shown that active people are less likely to be depressed, and interventional studies suggest that exercise is beneficial in reducing depression. (2) Once upon a time, studies tended to focus solely on aerobic exercise, but plenty have been surfacing that prove resistance training to be just as effective. (3)
Here are some of the reasons why exercise might be the new alternative to Prozac:
I assure you that when you’re running a mile or slaying a circuit on the Ab Coaster (4), your mind isn’t going to be anywhere else. This is one of the most powerful tools we have for combatting anxiety or depression because when you learn to be present, you can notice negative thought loops and work on redirecting them. If you struggle with focus, make sure to nab a free copy of my workbook, How to Improve Your Focus and Boost Your Happiness, to nix bad habits and get back to your goals. (5)
When you workout, your body releases endorphins, dopamine, adrenaline and endocannabinoid -- brain chemicals associated with happiness, confidence, physical pain relief and stress reduction. It’s like the perfect natural cocktail of mood boosters!
We know that physical activity improves muscle strength, getting us closer to that six-pick, but in doing so, combined with it’s ability to boost your endurance, deliver oxygen and nutrients to your tissues and help your heart and lungs work more efficiently, that workout actually increases your energy. Studies consistently show that sedentary people who complete a regular exercise program report improved fatigue. (6) Sure, you might be panting for a couple of minutes as your heart rate returns to resting, but afterward, you will have sustained increased energy to tackle daily tasks as well as go after your goals. It’s a no brainer how this will have a positive effect on your mental well-being.
Practicing mild exercise, such as yoga or a slower abs circuit with reduced weight, stimulates the vagus nerve, which is the tangible connector of the brain and gut. It’s actually a series of nerves that runs from the brain stem, down the neck, across the chest and abdomen and into the colon. By stimulating this, you are also stimulating the smooth muscle that lines the gut. When this muscle contracts, it pushes food along the entire digestive tract, encouraging healthy digestion.
Because you are stimulating the vagus nerve and improving digestion, you’re promoting optimal vitamin and nutrient absorption. Many nutrient deficiencies such as iron, calcium, tryptophan and potassium can have negative effects on your mental state by producing symptoms such as: depression, fatigue, trouble concentrating, anxiety and irritability.
Exercise makes us feel good about our abilities and our physique and it provides us with a sense of accomplishment, all of which boosts our confidence. When we show up and we know that we’re treating our bodies and minds well, we’re rightfully proud of ourselves. When we can upgrade from the six to eight pound slam ball, (7) trim a few seconds off of our lap record in the pool or touch our toes for the first time, we can see ourselves grow and watch ourselves overcome obstacles. And when we start seeing the pounds drop or the muscles tone, we feel unstoppable.
If you’re struggling mentally, it’s important to talk to your medical professional to assess you for underlying health concerns or deficiencies and to give you the green light to start any kind of fitness routine.
It’s also helpful to engage a positive friend in your exercise pursuits, such as a gym buddy or running partner, as this will make you feel supported and motivated. I know when I first started healing myself from clinical depression (8) through lifestyle changes, connecting with other people who would help inspire me to get out of bed on my bad days was crucial. Otherwise, that negative self-talk in my head would start listing off my shortcomings and telling me that I was too weak or too tired.
Now, I keep my SMI (Serious Mental Illness) decertification letter on the fridge because those voices and my mental health professionals told me that I couldn’t lead a fulfilling life or be truly happy and that nobody got decertified as having a SMI. I proved them all wrong.