Beginning exercisers are often frustrated by how long it takes to start seeing — and feeling — results. When you’re starting from square one, it can take 6-12 weeks or longer to even begin noticing a difference in your physical fitness level. Unfortunately, many people don’t make it that far — they decide it’s not worth it, and drop out.
Here’s what I wish everyone new to exercise understood — the mental health benefits of regular physical activity are powerful, and they’re often noticeable much sooner than the physical benefits. Recent research underscores the anti-depressive, anti-anxiety, stress-buffering, mood-boosting effects of exercise. Higher levels of physical activity have even been linked with greater levels of excitement and enthusiasm — could you use more of that? If you just hang in there and stay active, even when you don’t feel like it — especially when you don’t feel like it — the payoffs are priceless:
- Exercise is used to treat anxiety and may be useful in preventing it. Subjects participating in a 2-week exercise program experienced big improvements in anxiety compared to a control group. Researchers say that because exercise increases heart rate, sweating, and breathing rate —similar to anxiety symptoms — it may serve as a kind of “exposure” treatment, conditioning patients to interpret the symptoms differently.
- In a study of adults with diabetes and depression —conditions that often occur together — subjects undergoing a 12-week program of exercise and cognitive-behavioral therapy showed improvements in both depression and blood-sugar control.
- Another study had subjects with major depressive disorder complete either a 30-minute treadmill workout or 30 minutes of quiet rest. Both groups reported similar reductions in distress, depression, confusion, fatigue, tension, and anger. But only the exercise group reported a substantial surge in positive well-being and vigor scores.
You don’t have to suffer from anxiety or depression to reap the mental health benefits of exercise — it’s a well-known way to combat stress, both in the moment and long-term. There’s nothing like a good, sweaty workout to blow off steam from a hard day at work or a long day with the kids; even a single bout of cardiovascular exercise can boost mood for up to 12 hours!
In my twenties, I exercised for one reason — weight control. I understood that regular exercise would reduce my risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other maladies, but the risk-reducing benefits of exercise weren’t enough to make me get up before dawn to work out before my 8:00 a.m. classes.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and at midlife, I find the mental health benefits to be a far more compelling reason to exercise. When I don’t exercise, I feel mentally weary and stressed out. After a moderate or vigorous morning workout, I feel fantastic — and carry that positive attitude into my workday and beyond. Sometimes it feels like magic.
Why not put a little sweat equity into your day? Building a strong heart and strong body will happen over time with regular exercise. But you can brighten your outlook and start feeling a whole lot better sooner than you think — just get up and get moving.
Beth Shepard, MS, ACSM-RCEP, ACE-PT, has a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Arizona. Beth is an expert in fitness and health promotion and a certified wellness coach, helping people thrive by adopting sustainable lifestyle changes. She and her family love to hike, bicycle, and try new sports.
- Weir K, The Exercise Effect, APA Monitor, Dec 2011, Vol 42, No.11 Print version: p.48
- Ramirez A, Kravitz L, Resistance Training Improves Mental Health, IDEA Fitness Journal January 2012
- Bartholomew, J B, Morrison D, and Ciccolo JT. Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood and Well-Being in Patients with Major Depressive Disorder. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 37, No. 12, pp. 2032–2037, 2005.
- Conroy DE, Elavsky S, Hyde A, and. Doerksen S. The Dynamic Nature of Physical Activity Intentions: A Within-Person Perspective on Intention-Behavior Coupling. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 2011, 33, 807-827. Retrieved March 9, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2012/02/120208132709.htm
- American College of Sports Medicine, Boost Your Mood at Least Half the Day with Physical Activity, ACSM In The News, 2011