A Healthy Mind: How Exercise Can Improve Your Mental Well-Being

Summary: Even short bouts of physical activity and exercise throughout the day can help boost your mental well-being.

Source: university of toronto

As Toronto experiences a particularly dismal January, many may be wondering what they can do to give their mental well-being a boost.

Catherine Sabiston, a professor at the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) at the University of Toronto, says physical exercise is a potentially important strategy.

“If people can engage in small bouts of physical activity throughout the day — even just a minute or two at a time — and build up to 10 to 20 minutes a day, that’s beneficial,” she recommends.

The Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Mental Health, Sabiston directs KPE’s Mental Health and Physical Activity Research Center (MPARC). The center studies the connections between physical activity and mental health and develops and evaluates interventions to promote physical activity and mental well-being among people who are at risk for inactivity and mental health problems.

She also runs a six-week program called MoveU.HappyU, which provides personalized guidance and training aimed at reducing students’ stress and anxiety through physical movement.

Writer Jelena Damjanovic recently sat down with Sabiston to talk about the benefits of movement for our bodies — and minds.

It’s common knowledge that physical activity is good for the body, but there is growing evidence that being physically active is also good for the soul. Can you explain the science behind this? How does our brain reward us for moving?

There are probably as many ways that physical activity helps our physical health as it does our mental health. Technically speaking, mental health is the result of how our brain rewards us for moving.

Our brain is responsible for many of the processes that make us feel, think and act. When we are physically active, we enhance these systems through increased cellular and molecular processes – cerebral blood flow, circulation of neurotropic factors, a cascade of cellular mechanisms that positively affect the function of many regions of the brain.

When we are physically active, we are also raising the temperature of our bodies, and feeling warmer means feeling comfortable and safe. Warmth and comfort that result from being physically active are key to mental health and, specifically, taking care of ourselves.

Also, as humans, we were meant to be more active than we currently are. If you think of our ancestors, the hunters, the gatherers, their days were full of movement and work for all their needs. As we become more sedentary, our brains love it when we are really active, it gets us up to a level of activity where we should be. This is a kind of homeostasis where our activity level matches our natural intent as humans.

Beyond cells and molecules, what role does our mind play in how it perceives the mental health benefits of physical activity?

Self-perception is an important indicator of mental health. By being physically active, we build a sense of mastery and confidence that not only helps us keep going, but is also conducive to mental health.

Whether we’re doing physical activity with others, virtually or in person, or whether we’re out being active and seeing other people in the environment, it all gives us a sense of support and community that helps build our mental health. In fact, being physically active outdoors exacerbates all the positive benefits, as does exercising with a dog.

How much physical activity (per day or per week) do we need to reap all these benefits?

There are all kinds of different guidelines around physical activity and the most recent guidelines from the Canadian movement have explored mental health benefits a bit, but not to the same extent as they were designed for physical health benefits.

The challenge with any guideline is that it is defined by others and may not be achievable by all. So, from a mental health perspective in particular, being a little more active and engaging in a little more movement every day is a useful starting point. If people can engage in small bouts of physical activity throughout the day – even just a minute or two at a time – and build up to 10 to 20 minutes a day, that will be beneficial.

Research is still in its infancy in terms of dose, frequency and type of physical activity, but we generally know that any activity at intermittent times is helpful.

Does it matter if we are physically active in the morning, afternoon or evening?

In terms of benefits, we still don’t know if one time of day is better than another – and if the benefits would be experienced equally by everyone based on identity factors such as gender, race and age.

It is crucial to plan physical activity at a time of day when you can do it. This is more important than whether there is a better time. If I were to say that the night is the best time and that you can never fit physical activity into your evening routine, this would not be the best time.

Are all exercises equally good for us?

Technically, all exercise is good for us in terms of movement for mental health benefits. However, exercise that is not enjoyable, that causes pain, or that is done for extrinsic reasons, for example because someone else is doing it or someone told you to, etc., is not good for us.

Also, adding small bursts of physical activity throughout the day can be beneficial if those bursts are intentional – for example, if we plan for them, notice and pay attention to what we do and how we feel.

Is ‘high runners’ a real thing or a myth? Can you get a high from any exercise?

The prototypical ‘runner’s high’ has been used to describe any state during exercise when the mind and body are in sync, aligned and free of self-criticism and other thoughts, and you feel effortless as you blend in with your surroundings. Time flies and you generally feel good.

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‘Runner’s high’ is likely to be experienced in any exercise where these conditions are met, but it is generally easier to experience longer, non-repetitive distances outdoors, therefore more conducive to running, rowing and cycling, for example. . You are not likely to experience this flow state during team sports or group activities because of the complexities of environments and people.

Also, while this runner’s high or flow can be experienced at different exercise intensities, it’s more likely when you’re pushing yourself at least a little. There has to be some effort required to engage in the activity.

How has the MoveU.HappyU program helped students relieve stress and anxiety?

The program focuses on physical activity tailored to each individual, so we embrace the fact that exercise should be enjoyable and build confidence while promoting maintenance.

It shows a woman running
There are probably as many ways that physical activity helps our physical health as it does our mental health. The image is in the public domain

In the six-week program results, we consistently observed significant reductions in stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, as well as increases in feelings of confidence, mastery, quality of life, and self-esteem after the program ended.

What would you advise students – and others – who want to become more physically active but can’t commit to a six-week program?

Here are some tips for including physical activity in your day:

  • Look for on-campus programs and activities offered by KPE’s Sport and Recreation program. Try different activities and find your favorites that you can keep coming back to.
  • Try to incorporate more distance into your movement – get off the bus or subway a stop or two earlier or later, park your car further away from your destination, and take the long way to class. Always use the stairs or ramp instead of the elevator or escalator. Schedule an extra 20 minutes into your calendar to allow for active commuting.
  • Move with intention but without a purpose. When shopping, move around the entire center or store instead of just buying what you need. For example, walk or circle all the supermarket aisles, even if you only need vegetables. Move around the entire bookstore instead of just picking up what you need.
  • Move with your coffee/tea/juice instead of sitting in the cafe. Try having motion-based meetings with other people or while planning your group tasks. If you are working a lot in groups, designate one person per meeting to lead a 3-5 minute movement activity.
  • Get up or move around as much as possible throughout the day. There is new evidence that breaks from sedentary time are very important for health. We also have some fun videos that can be used as fitbreaks during classes.
  • Use technology to “gamify” your activity. For example, buy a pedometer and try to take a few extra steps each day. If you like competition and support, invite others to join you in the goal of getting more movement time or distance. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, you can also use an online mapping program or smartphone apps that use GPS to show how far you’ve covered. You can even start mapping your routes and try to get creative about the art you can create.

Any tips to stay motivated for physical activity, especially on cold and gray days like the ones we’ve been having lately?

It is important to stay active by staying positive and removing self-criticism. You may not be able to do as much activity as you think you need to, but every little bit helps. It’s also important to maintain consistent sleep patterns, even if it’s so dark and gloomy. Without sun, you can still be active outdoors and still get the benefits of moving around in nature.

Natural light is very important, regardless of sunlight. If you really don’t like the idea of ​​getting dressed and leaving the house, this is a good time to try the virtual fitness classes that are available more than ever.

There are many free workouts available online and on social media, including U of T’s three-minute motion interval videos and Sport & Rec’s virtual workout library.

About this exercise and mental health research news

Author: Jelena Damjanovic
Source: university of toronto
Contact: Jelena Damjanovic – University of Toronto
Image: The image is in the public domain

A Healthy Mind: How Exercise Can Improve Your Mental Well-Being

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