physical exercise and mental health

How Exercise Can Help Improve Stress and Depression

When you’re suffering from stress or depression, it’s entirely normal to find it hard to motivate yourself to undertake normal everyday activities, including exercise. However, an active lifestyle is known to have important benefits in terms of alleviating the symptoms of stress and depression by improving mood and raising self-esteem, which are all important factors in a gradual return to normal life.

How can exercise improve depression?

An exercise programme, which need not be arduous, helps to lessen depression for a number of reasons:

• Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins and neurotransmitters, the so-called ‘feel good’ chemicals in the brain that improve mood and reduce negative feelings
• Chemicals in the immune system are reduced as a result of exercise, which can help to improve symptoms
• Exercising regularly helps to instil a sense of self-worth, for example by achieving targets, accelerating weight loss, improving muscle tone and providing a focus that will help to defeat the cycle of depression

How much exercise should I do?

Short sessions of regular exercise are likely to be more beneficial than a single, longer session less often, so 20 to 30 minutes three to five times a week is ideal. However, if this isn’t practical, or you find it difficult to motivate yourself to exercise this frequently, a shorter session will still be beneficial; you can also work towards longer sessions in the future.

The length of a session also depends on the activity in which you are participating; intensive cardiac workouts, such as swimming and cycling, will be effective even for shorter durations. Brisk walking, by comparison, is more beneficial if undertaken for at least 20 minutes.

How should I set myself targets?

Even when you’re not suffering from depression, it’s easy to give up when a physical activity is demanding. For this reason, it’s important not to overexert yourself to begin with but to follow a structured approach to exercise:

• Choose an activity you enjoy and can manage quite easily. Opting for a new sport that requires lots of tuition and practice might exacerbate a sense of failure if you don’t make quick progress
• Set small targets initially that you know you can achieve. Don’t expect to be able to run a marathon after a month!
• Set times to exercise that you know you can stick to, such as first thing in the morning or after returning from work. Above all, avoid persuading yourself to miss a session; if it’s genuinely difficult to exercise one day, reduce the time or the distance you complete, rather than skipping it altogether
• As you gain confidence, make your targets a little more challenging, but don’t punish yourself if you don’t meet them all the time. Expect to fall short on some days, but understand that you’re still making progress

Exercising is a great way to stay in shape, improve your cardiovascular health, tone muscles and conquer the symptoms of stress and depression. The chances are, even after a short time, you’ll feel the benefits physically and emotionally and this can work alongside any treatment that Dr Ahmed may prescribe for you.

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