The snow is melting today, for sure! Time is of the essence. Time to jot down a quick bit of motivation, and then off to do some snowshoeing before the sun sets. My exercise pill of choice is anything in the outdoors with fresh air and the beauty of nature!

Exercise as Medicine: How exactly does the exercise pill work?

It builds brain cells. One key area where this happens is the hippocampus, which is involved in memory, learning, and regulating negative emotions. It goes beyond “go walk and you will just feel better.” The brain is a very plastic organ, meaning it is capable of being restored, and exercise (especially cardio) does change the brain. Exercise improves memory function, cognitive performance, and academic achievement.

It reduces inflammation. Moderate exercise also seems to have anti-inflammatory effects, regulating the immune system and excessive inflammation.

It benefits mental health and clinical symptoms of anxiety and depression. Reducing inflammation is important, given the insight neuroscience is gaining into the potential role of inflammation in anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, and phobias. Exercise has a positive effect on neurotransmitters (the brain chemicals that send signals between neurons) – specifically dopamine and endorphins – both of which are involved in positive mood and motivation.

Studies show that regular exercise has an effect on depressive symptoms even comparable to psychotherapy, and it reduces anxiety symptoms in people with anxiety disorders. It reduces baseline heart rate, which may inform the brain that there is a calmer internal physical environment. Exercise can even potentially desensitize people to the physical symptoms of anxiety such as shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and chest tightness, because of the similarity between the physical effects of exercise and those of anxiety. It is important to note that exercise should be a part of, not a replacement for, necessary mental health care of clinically diagnosed mental health disorders.

Other perks of exercise. When going outdoors for physical activity, we get more exposure to sunlight, fresh air, and nature. Exercise can also improve self-image, self-esteem, and self-confidence. One of my patients befriended a neighbor during her regular walks, leading to regular taco Tuesdays with a new friend. Some of us may pick a dog as an activity mate, and others might meet a new date. Group activities provide us with others who help keep us motivated and serve as a social support network. Some may learn of a new hobby through new connections. Some may simply enjoy the high energy at the gym, or a newly found sense of peace in nature. Exercise can also function as a mindfulness practice and a respite from common daily stressors, and from electronic devices and TV.

Practical ways for a busy life. So how do we find time to exercise, especially with the additional time limitations imposed by daily obligations, or with unexpected changes in daily routine – such as during a pandemic?

  • Pick something you can love – whatever ups your heartbeat – even dancing with the TV ads, playing with the kid and pets, or stacking firewood! Not all of us love to run on a treadmill. What works for one person might not work for another. Try a diverse group of activities and see which one you like most: walking, running @thegatecitystriders, “on-demand” videos, dancing@allegrodancenh, hip hop cardio @ZClubNH, biking @granitestatewheelers, kayaking @NashuaKayak, kickboxing @9roundnashua, karate @NeilStoneKarate, yoga @aerialmoonyoga, Barre @PureBarreNashua, weights @YMCAofGreaterNashua, swimming @somersetSF or maybe even making a habit of dog walking @HumaneSocietyforGreaterNashua Woof Pack! You can even rotate between some or make seasonal changes to avoid boredom.
  • Use positive peer pressure to your advantage. Create a messaging group for the activity (because after a busy day at work, you may have trouble fighting the urge to relax on the couch and have trouble finding the motivation to be active). It becomes easier when friends send a message that they will be there at the online class or at the gym, and they motivate you.
  • Do not see it as all or none. It does not have to be a one-hour work out vs. staying on the couch. I always say to my patients: “One short walk is better than none, and three squats are better than no squats.” In the beginning, or when you feel less motivated, just be nice to yourself. Do as much as possible. Three minutes of dancing with your favorite music still counts!
  • Merge it with other activities: 15 minutes of walking while on the phone with a friend, even around the house, is still being active.
  • When you are low on motivation, ask yourself: “When was the last time I regretted doing it?”
  • Although it can help, exercise is not the ultimate weight loss strategy – diet is. One large brownie might be more calories than one hour of running. Don’t give up on exercise if you are not losing weight. It is still providing all the benefits listed above.

Take your exercise pills. Use them to regulate your mood. Use them to improve your self-confidence. Use them to reduce inflammation. Use them to give you a sense of calmness and serenity. Use them for protecting your brain. They are preventative medicine!

Source: Arash Javanbakht, MD

#exercise #exerciseasmedicine #fitness #workout #foreveryone #mindset #constantprogress