You're probably aware that engaging in regular exercise is critical for optimal physical health and performance, but do you know it also can boost your mental health and well being? Research suggests a strong connection between exercise and the prevention and treatment of psychological illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Exercise also might improve your mental state and support your cognitive function throughout your life. For Operators and Enablers, exercise lays the foundation for strength and mission readiness downrange.
For families, a regular physical activity regimen helps everyone stay mission ready at home by providing the energy and vitality needed to juggle busy lives, increase resilience in the face of stress, and boost overall well being.
So how does exercise support mental health? Physical activity affects certain hormones, endorphins, and other neurotransmitters in your body, which directly influence your mood, emotions, and brain health, both in the short and long term. Certain kinds of exercise, such as yoga, strengthen the mind-body connection and help you increase awareness of how your body reacts to stress and other events in your life. Yoga can teach you to manage those reactions through controlled breathing and shaping your attention. In addition, those who exercise regularly might fall asleep quicker—and sleep longer and deeper—than those who don't exercise.
Physical activity also has been associated with lower levels of depression, while an inactive lifestyle appears to increase your likelihood of developing depression. For those who have been diagnosed with clinical depression, exercise can significantly reduce symptoms, especially when combined with traditional forms of psychological therapy. Even if you just have occasional bouts of the blues, physical activity can help regulate your mood and enhance positive emotional states. Exercise can help calm both the physiological activation and the emotional experience of anxiety.
For children, physical activity supports academic achievement. But the benefits of physical activity to brain health and cognitive function can last a lifetime. Higher levels of physical fitness, physical activity, and sport participation are associated with higher levels of cognitive performance in adolescents, teens, and adults. Exercise also might reduce your risk of developing cognitive impairment such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
Physical activity can boost your sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Your assessment of how you look and how strong you feel plays a big role in how you feel about yourself. Exercise that's enjoyable and challenges you to improve your skill levels can help build your confidence. It also can instill in you the belief that you have what it takes to work through and overcome tough challenges. If you enjoy the social aspects of exercise, then team sports and activities such as dancing, CrossFit, or yoga classes can help you create strong bonds with others by promoting camaraderie and a sense of belonging.
Physical fitness can bolster resilience by enabling you to blunt your reactions to stress and buffering you from a range of mental health issues and emotional stress. Although exercise isn't a solution by itself, it might help reduce your risk of mental illness and other problematic behaviors, including suicide. Despite research supporting the benefits of regular physical activity, most people don't get enough to reap the benefits.
Visit the POTFF Body Section to learn more about developing your own exercise program and sticking to it. Your body—and your mind—will be grateful you did.