By Kaela Barton
Does exercise have effects on our mental health?
I am sure we have all heard from a friend, family member, or doctor, “You should exercise more it will make you feel better!” “Exercising can help reduce your symptoms of PTSD/trauma!”
We sit there thinking, “really? Will it ACTUALLY make me feel better or just worse? How does it make me feel better than laying in my nice, warm bed?
The fact of the matter is – it will! Science has proven this to us time and time again.
I am a real life example of someone who used to work out once every two months for a week straight, then I would fall off the horse. After 9 months of consistency working out 4-5 days a week, I can honestly say that science is not lying to us. I feel much better not only physically but mentally.
Being in a pandemic can become too overwhelming, too stressful, and too exhausting. When there was legitimately nowhere to go, exercise has given my body and brain an outlet. So, I get it if you are still skeptical. I was too! I’ve done the research so you don’t have to – exercising can do wonders for your mental health. It has for mine!
It would be silly of me to say that exercising can eliminate all stress or trauma that you may be dealing with. This is something to help you manage these symptoms.
The ADAA even says, “Exercise is also considered vital for maintaining mental fitness, and it can reduce stress. Studies show that it is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy or ability to concentrate.”
Exercising does wonders for our cognitive function. When you finish a workout you probably feel more awake, more alert, and you can find yourself being able to focus more clearly. We all know that feeling of being so stressed out that we have worn ourselves out mentally. Exercising can help when this is the case.
It may seem counter-intuitive. I’m exhausted so I should work out? Pushing ourselves and our bodies when we feel mentally drained is a way of working out both our minds and bodies.
I know that getting up early to go to the gym tested my mental fortitude the first few weeks. But reminding myself that the benefits far outweighed my need to sleep in, I was able to tell myself that it was worth getting up early. Sometimes our mind needs a reminder that we are capable, we are strong, and we can do this!
Now let’s talk science-science.
What exactly is happening to our brain when all this physical activity is happening? I turned to some of the minds at Harvard Medical School, who have written extensively on it.
They state, “Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the “runner’s high” and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts — or, at least, the hot shower after your exercise is over.”
From this we can say that when we are exercising, we are actively reducing stress levels, elevating our mood, and overall can feel more relaxed.
How does this tie into trauma?
When talking about trauma, I am going to focus on PTSD specifically. Though this may be true on a broad spectrum for trauma, many studies focus specifically on PTSD. Often people who experience PTSD may avoid physical activities because it triggers physiological responses that may be uncomfortable to handle.
Rosenbaum 2017 tried to debunk this with the following, “For example, those with an increased trait/state anxiety may avoid participating in physical activity to avoid physiological reactions including hyperventilation, tachycardia, dizziness, or sweating, which are also common signs and symptoms of panic (Knapen et al. 2015). However, given that physical activity has demonstrated anxiolytic effects via repeated exposure to anxiety-related somatic sensations (Knapen et al. 2015), it has been argued that increased physical activity among patients with (4 S. Rosenbaum et al.) PTSD may lead to decreased hyper-arousal symptoms (Vancampfort et al. 2016b)”.
In non-science terms: some people with PTSD avoid working out because some of the symptoms of panic attacks can feel similar to working out. However, it is proven that if you’re able to make a consistent pattern of working out, the benefits may be decreased anxiety symptoms. We often encourage taking this journey with a therapist, they can help you navigate the potentially triggering parts of working out and help you get to the workouts that benefit you.
So, I admit that exercise might help me – now what? If you are unsure where to start, break out a journal and start listing some of your goals. From there, you can start putting those goals into action. Reach out to friends and family to help you stay accountable, maybe ask a friend to be a gym buddy. The best advice is to begin and keep going – you are able to figure out what works best along the way.
You will be amazed at what you and your body are capable of doing. There are many benefits to engaging in our physical health that go beyond just the physical aspects. Exercising can be a stress release for many and as shown there are positive benefits!
Free apps to use to exercise if you can’t go to the gym or want more of an instructor: FitOn (can follow friends on here too for accountability), Headspace (not just for meditation!), YouTube, and so much more (take a look in your app store!).
ADAA. 2020. Exercise for Stress and Anxiety. https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/managing-a nxiety/exercise-stress-and-anxiety. Harvard Health Publishing. 2020. Exercising to Relax. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-h ealthy/exercising-to-relax. Muller, Robert. (2016). Exercising Your Way to PTSD Recovery. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-trauma/201608/exercising-your-way-ptsd-recovery. Rosenbaum et al. 2017. Exercise and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Handbuch Stressregulation und Sport. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-662-49322-9_16.