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Movement and your mind

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From improving brain function to lulling you to sleep, a little bit of exercise can go a long way in supporting your mental health.

When you’re feeling low, the pick-me-up you may need may be as simple as getting your blood flowing. Yes, we’re talking about exercise.

Some research has shown movement can be a mood elevator. It’s also shown exercise may help prevent and ease certain mental health conditions.1

But when you don’t feel well emotionally, it can be hard to find the energy to do some things. So it’s important to reach out for help if you’re not feeling well.

It’s also important to follow instructions from your doctor or other care provider if you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

Adding in exercise or other physical activities to your routine may further help you take care of your emotional health. Here are nine reasons to walk, dance, go to the gym or just get up and do a few squats — even when you don’t feel like it.

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1. Cancel stress

Had one of those days? We’ve all been there. While it may be tempting to reach for your favorite comfort food or curl up in front of the TV, consider going for a walk to sweat out those feelings instead.

Exercise can reduce stress and release endorphins, which are our body’s natural feel-good chemicals.2

2. Reshape your brain

Struggling with your mental health doesn’t just impact your mood or habits. It may also impact the structure of your brain.

Take the hippocampus, for example. It’s a part of the brain that plays a central role in learning, memory, emotions and stress. Depression, the most common mental health condition, may shrink the hippocampus and other parts of the brain over time.3

The good news: Experts think these changes are reversible. According to one study, exercise is one way to improve functions your brain performs daily, including managing your emotions, memory and speech. Brain functions can be affected if you have depression.4

3. Improve your mood

In life, it’s easy to sweat the small stuff. Looming deadlines, a broken washing machine, long lines at the pharmacy. Sometimes these everyday challenges can be enough to push us over the edge.

Turns out adding activity to your day, however you can, may help put things into perspective and lower your stress.

Making it to the other side of a workout is good for you. The energy you put into a workout can alter your dopamine (a feel-good chemical in the brain) balance and boost your mood for the rest of the day.

4. Get better sleep

When you’re feeling low, quality sleep can help you feel better. In sleep, memories are stored. Emotions are rehearsed. You reload serotonin (another feel-good chemical in the brain) and dopamine. And the brain gets recharged.

If you’re struggling to get the Zs you need, get moving. Many people who are active often sleep better compared to those who move less during the day. That’s according to a review in Advances in Preventive Medicine.5

The cool part: It didn’t matter what kind of exercise you did or how intense it was.

5. Help prevent feeling down in the first place

There are many possible reasons someone might have symptoms of depression. But what experts tend to agree on: Self-care can go a long way toward reducing your risk. A study in The American Journal of Psychiatry followed nearly 34,000 healthy adults over age 11.

The findings? People in the study who exercised even 1 hour a week experienced less depression. The results also suggest if all people in the study exercised, 12% of new depression diagnoses would have been prevented.6

Find simple ways to add more activity to your day on our Until It’s Fixed podcast

6. Bring back calm with nature

Take a hike. No, literally. Being in nature can be calming. Some research shows that regularly being active outdoors can reduce worries and lead to more positive feelings.7

Bonus: Being outside in your neighborhood or gardening counts.

7. Boost growth of your brain cells

Movement triggers the production of a protein that affects mood and your thoughts in a good way. It’s called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).8 So the next time you’re hemming and hawing about going for a walk or run, think of it as food for your brain.

8. Help ease feelings of anxiety

Doing an activity you enjoy that also gets you moving may take your mind off your worries.9 And it may boost your confidence to tackle everyday challenges.

A large-scale Swedish study of people who ski found that being physically active cut the risk of developing anxiety by more than half.10 Other research shows exercise may also reduce anxiety symptoms if you have anxiety or a stress-related condition.11

9. Get benefits similar to some medications

Medications can be necessary and work well in treating depression and other mental health conditions (especially if you have severe symptoms).

Yet there’s something to be said for the power of movement. Recent studies of adults with depression suggest that supervised aerobic exercise can give relief.11

Why? Well, it seems to target the same areas of the brain that impact mood. Always talk to your doctor about your treatment options — and never stop medication without their supervision.

When you’re feeling low, it’s important to do what's best for you. Sometimes, that’s rest. Other days, it could be talking to a friend. But just know that even small doses of exercise may do your body — and mind — a world of good.

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  1. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics. Last updated June 3, 2020. Accessed March 31, 2022.
  2. American Psychological Association. Working out boosts brain health. Last updated March 4, 2020. Accessed April 29, 2022.
  3. Advances in Preventive Medicine. Interrelationship between sleep and exercise: A systemic review. Last updated March 26, 2017. Accessed March 31, 2022.
  4. Ibid.
  5. National Institute of Mental Health. Depression. Last updated February 2018. Accessed March 31, 2022.
  6. The American Journal of Psychiatry. Exercise and the prevention of depression: Results of the HUNT Cohort study. Last updated October 3, 2017. Accessed March 31, 2022.
  7. Psychology Today. Nature and Mental Health. What is the link? Last updated October 22, 2019. Accessed April 26, 2022.
  8. Journal of psychiatric research. Assessing BDNF as a mediator of the effects of exercise on depression. Last updated February 8, 2020. Accessed April 26, 2022.
  9. Mayo Clinic. Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. Last updated September 27, 2017. Accessed March 31, 2022.
  10. Frontiers in Psychiatry. Physical activity is associated with lower long-term incidence of anxiety in a population-based, large-scale study. Last updated September 10, 2021. Accessed March 31, 2022.
  11. Psychiatry Research. An examination of the anxiolytic effects of exercise for people with anxiety and stress-related disorders: A meta-analysis. Last updated January 6, 2017. Accessed May 5, 2022.
  12. JAMA Psychiatry. A Mendelian Randomization Approach for Assessing the Relationship Between Physical Activity and Depression. Last updated January 23, 2019. Accessed April 26, 2022.

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Check with your doctor or medical care provider before beginning any exercise routine.

Optum does not recommend or endorse any treatment or medications, specific or otherwise. The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide medical advice or otherwise replace professional advice. Consult with your clinician, physician or mental health care provider for specific health care needs, treatment or medications. Certain treatments may not be included in your insurance benefits. Check with your health plan regarding your coverage of services.

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