Exercise and Mental Health: My #BestMedicine for My Well-Being

I first started working out when I was young — around 14 or 15 years old — primarily because of my body-image issues: I felt that I was too scrawny. Once I started working more physical activity into my life, however, I realized that I enjoyed it, whether it was a jog or a game of pickup basketball. But it wasn’t until I reached my 20s that I started understanding the connection between exercise and mental health — and how much of an impact it could make on my personal well-being.

A Big Wake-Up Call

I was diagnosed with depression in my 20s, and while trudging my way — with limited success — through a variety of treatments, my physical activity levels began to wane, as did just about any healthy habit that I had ever developed. Sure enough, in about a year I gained around 60 pounds without even realizing it.

After a time, I had started to make progress with my depression and developed some positive ways to cope with my symptoms, but I also needed to focus on making a consistent effort to lose weight and regain something close to my old physical shape. I decided that a powerful step in this process would be to get my certification as a personal trainer, which was something I had already been considering for several years. My workouts then went from being a haphazard way to vent frustration and stress to calculated, properly designed sessions. I also started to fully appreciate the value of exercise for my mental well-being.

How Exercise Can Help

There’s a huge body of evidence to support the idea that regular exercise can benefit individuals dealing with depression and anxiety that stretches back to the early 1980s. In fact, some studies have even found that exercise can be at least as effective as certain antidepressants and that some people who do not respond well to medications — such as myself — might actually have better success with their symptoms through exercise.

I became driven to understand the precise mechanisms at work between exercise and mental health, which was not a very fruitful search: As it turns out, even the experts aren’t entirely sure what exercise does to promote an improved mood and reduced anxiety, but there are plenty of theories.

For a long time, the prevailing thought was that exercise increased the production of endorphins — neurotransmitters that control mood, stress, and even pain. The influence of endorphins over mood, though, has been debated recently: Research has also delved into how exercise increases the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which also directly impacts our mood.

Hitting Your Goals

Leaving science aside, there’s also a good chance that exercise can help fight depression in another, more subtle way. Exercise should be a goal-oriented process. If you’re sticking to your routine and meeting your set goals, there’s a sense of victory and empowerment that can go a long way toward improving mood and even fighting those familiar feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem.

This is precisely why I love to exercise. My workouts are planned far ahead of time, designed to bring me from one victory to the next. Each time I accomplish a goal, I get a little boost of affirmation — and the neurotransmitters probably help out a lot, too! No question about it: In a number of ways, regular exercise has become my #bestmedicine.

Why do you exercise? Do you feel that it helps your mental state along with your physical shape? Share your workout stories with us on Twitter!

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