Why Exercise Might Be Better Than Seeing a Shrink

psych couchThe physical benefits of regular exercise for the older person (and everybody else) should be obvious, but what about your mental health? Can participating in a workout program do anything to improve your mood, lift depression, reduce anxiety, or help out other emotional issues?

As it turns out, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

According to mentalhealth.org.uk, some of the mental and emotional benefits of exercise include:

  • Less tension, stress and mental fatigue
  • A natural energy boost
  • Improved sleep
  • A sense of achievement
  • Focus in life and motivation
  • Less anger or frustration
  • A healthy appetite
  • Better social life
  • Having fun

This source further states:

Aim to do 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. It may sound like a lot, but it isn’t as daunting as it first appears. ‘Moderate exercise’ means being energetic enough that you breathe a little heavier than normal, but aren’t out of breath (and) feel warmer, but don’t end up hot and sweaty.

That sounds like what’s normally recommended for a weekly cardio routine and is pretty achievable, although I always end up hot and sweaty by the time I leave the gym.

Woman doing squats
Photo credit: Breakingmuscle.com

The National Center for Biotechnology Information published a paper called “Exercise for Mental Health” and backed up many of these claims with significant research. As it turns out, exercise is beneficial not only for those normal “blue moods” or anxieties all people encounter from time to time, but even for those people who suffer from serious chronic mental problems.

Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal. Exercise is especially important in patients with schizophrenia since these patients are already vulnerable to obesity and also because of the additional risk of weight gain associated with antipsychotic treatment, especially with the atypical antipsychotics.

That’s pretty impressive.

But a website called Greatist.com mentioned something specific to older people:

It’s unpleasant, but it’s true — as we get older, our brains get a little…hazy. As aging and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s kill off brain cells, the noggin actually shrinks, losing many important brain functions in the process. While exercise and a healthy diet can’t “cure” Alzheimer’s, they can help shore up the brain against cognitive decline that begins after age 45. Working out, especially between age 25 and 45, boosts the chemicals in the brain that support and prevent degeneration of the hippocampus, an important part of the brain for memory and learning.

dumbbell squats
Photo credit: azcentral.com

That seems to suggest that we should start exercising sometime between 25 to 45 in order to see benefits later in life, but who’s to say that starting a workout program in your 50s, 60s, or later doesn’t help us keep what we’ve got above the neck a little sharper a little longer?

So far, it seems like all you’d need to do is 30 minutes of cardio 4 to 5 times a week, but what about resistance training? Does pushing a bunch of iron around make a difference to mental health?

A research paper published by Amenda Ramirez and Len Kravitz, Ph.D indicates:

The evidence is quite impressive how resistance training can improve several major mental health issues. In addition, the research is convincing that resistance training can appreciably improve cognitive function. An exercise professional’s bottom line message to clients is clear. For a mental lift, you should weight lift!

That’s just the summary and you should click the link I provided to get the details. And although this isn’t a mental health issue, one of the conclusions of the research is:

O’Connor and colleagues continue that the research indicates that physically active people usually have healthy sleep patterns and a lower risk to sleep apnea.

Older people and people with weight and respiratory problems are at greater risk for sleep apnea, which in turn significantly contributes to conditions such as heart problems, high blood pressure, and glaucoma. Not a mental health issue as such, but sleep apnea is considered within the realm of neurology and weight training is shown to lower the likelihood of suffering from this disorder.

Physical therapist Tony Ingram maintains a website called Bboy Science and, among other benefits, he concluded that strength training improves cognition, including memory, information processing, and problem solving, reduces the symptoms of depression, reduces fatigue, and increases general self-esteem. He’s supporting his findings with information published in a paper by O’Connor, Herring, and Caravalho in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine (2010) called “Mental Health Benefits of Strength Training in Adults.”

He also states that while we have plenty of research telling us why aerobic exercise benefits mental health, thanks to animal experiments, little in the way of research tells us exactly why strength training also improves our mental and emotional condition.

However, there seems to be sufficient evidence available telling us that both aerobic and resistance exercise helps us both physically and mentally. So, if after a while of working out, you notice you’re feeling not only better physically, but your mental and emotional state has improved, you know the reason why.

lucyYou can also check out this article at Bodybuilding.com on how lifting weights also lifts depression. They include information on foods and nutrition that affect your mental well-being.

I’m not going to say that exercise will solve all your emotional or mental issues. There are times when it is desirable and beneficial to see a counselor. On the other hand, sometimes the best person to consult about your problems is you. The “psychiatrist’s couch” in many cases, is a weight bench. Psychiatric help is the price of a workout. The doctor is in.

You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.

Margaret Thatcher

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10 thoughts on “Why Exercise Might Be Better Than Seeing a Shrink

  1. My appointment is today with a trainer at the new gym. He wants to show me how to use my own body weight to exercise, instead of machines. Why the heck did I join a gym with machines, then? Stay tuned.

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    1. Maybe he wants you to start out with bodyweight exercises and then transition to weights. You ask a good question, though. You could simply hire someone to teach you bodyweight work and once you became proficient, you could exercise on your own at home. My son David taught himself bodyweight work and that’s what he does.

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  2. Hi James,
    We are on the same page, thanks for the information, I want to check out the article that you mentioned about strength training. I have been thru the mill with depression and started to move away from processed food as well as incorporating just a few strength training moves, deadlifts, squats and pushups and found that prescription was alot more effective than anything I had done in the past. So much so that when I wrote a post with the benefit to fighting depression as one of the most important benefits of deadlifts! And I started at age 55 doing squats and deadlifts and am happy to say that they have been more valuable than I ever could imagine.
    Glad to have found your site!

    -Rich

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