Stressed out? Feeling blue? It’s tempting to look for a quick fix—jumping online for a little retail therapy, reaching for a pint of Häagen-Dazs… We’ve all been there, done that. But before you grab your credit card or open that freezer door, consider an alternative that won’t cost you cash or calories: working out.
Research shows that when you get moving, your mind benefits just as much as your body. “Individuals who exercise report fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and lower levels of stress and anger,” says Gregory Chertok, Director of the Sport and Exercise Psychology Program at the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Center in Englewood, NJ.
Working out will also help boost your self-esteem, improve your memory and sharpen your concentration. You’ll reap mind-body benefits no matter what type of workout you choose. “Cardio exercise, weight training and specialized workouts like yoga or Pilates all help to establish positive behaviors, and provide a sense of accomplishment,” says Chertok.
Read on to find out exactly how different types of exercise can help your mental health, and discover easy ways to get started.
If work is stressing you out, yoga can help. “Yoga helps to quiet the mind,” explains Judi Bar, lead yoga therapist at the Cleveland Clinic. “When you’re focused on a pose, you’re not thinking about your day’s work.”
Practicing yoga also helps you gain confidence and composure, so you don’t feel as frazzled when stressful situations do pop up. The proof: A recent study done in the United Kingdom found that a group of university employees who attended one yoga class per week felt improved mood and well-being. What’s more, the yoga group felt more confident when faced with stressful situations.
Checking email while putting together a PowerPoint presentation while figuring out what the heck to have for dinner… multi-tasking is so common these days, we do it without thinking. Regular yoga classes can help you regain focus, so you’re better able to concentrate on the task at hand. In a study done at California State University, subjects reported increased levels of concentration after eight weeks of yoga classes. “Yoga brings your mind and body together—it promotes what we call mindfulness,” explains Bar.
Better Mood and Decreased Anxiety
Research confirms that yoga can help you beat the blues. A small study conducted at Boston University School of Medicine found that doing just one hour of yoga boosts levels of a neurotransmitter called gamma-Aminobutyric (GABA) in the brain by 27 percent. The significance? Low levels of GABA are associated with conditions such as anxiety and depression.
“The research suggests that yoga stimulates specific brain areas, giving rise to changes in GABA levels, and having a positive effect on mood and anxiety,” explains Chertok. And on a purely common-sense note: “When your body feels better—more flexible and relaxed—your mental attitude improves,” adds Bar.
How to Get Started: Doing poses properly is crucial, so it’s a good idea to begin your yoga practice by taking a class, as opposed to just popping in a yoga DVD and doing it alone. “When you take a class, your instructor can make sure you’re doing poses safely,” says Bar.
Start with one class per week, rather than attempting to squeeze several classes into your already-packed schedule. “The key is consistency, and not setting unrealistic goals for yourself,” says Bar. “After all, you don’t want to stress out about it!”
If you’ve never done yoga before, Bar suggests starting with hatha yoga, gentle yoga, or a beginner level/introductory class. “Find a class that works with your schedule, try it and see if you like the energy,” says Bar. “Once you’ve been taking the class for a couple weeks, you can ask your instructor to help you with some poses you can do at home.”
The notion of “runner’s high” isn’t just an old wives’ tale. “Exercise appears to affect particular neurotransmitter systems in the brain, like an antidepressant would,” says Chertok. A study done at The Cooper Institute in Golden, CO, found that working out vigorously three to five days per week effectively treated mild to moderate depression in adults age 20–45. After 12 weeks, subjects reported a 47 percent decrease in symptoms of depression.
Researchers still don’t know exactly why cardio exercise makes us feel so good. For decades it was thought that hormones called endorphins were responsible. Now, emerging research shows that endocannabinoids—the same receptors that allow cannabis (yep, marijuana) to trigger a feel-good response in the body—may be the real culprit. A study done at Georgia Institute of Technology found that students who ran on a treadmill or rode an exercise bicycle at moderate intensity for 50 minutes experienced increased levels of endocannabinoids. Whatever the reason, the natural high you get from a cardio workout is just one more excuse to hit the gym.
A recent study done at Saginaw State University in Michigan found that college students who exercised for 20 minutes per day had higher grade point averages than students who skipped workouts. High achievers may just be more motivated to work out, but there may also be a biological link: “Cardio workouts pump extra blood to the brain, which delivers oxygen and essential nutrients it needs to perform at maximum efficiency,” explains Fredina Weems, Fitness Program Manager at the Cleveland Clinic. Cardio exercise also increases the formation of new brain cells connected to memory and learning. In fact, light workouts are actually used as therapy in elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease or memory loss.
Having trouble catching z’s? Research shows that moderate exercise can help you get a better night’s sleep. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that working out four to five hours before hitting the sack helped insomnia patients fall asleep faster, wake up less frequently and get an overall better night’s rest than those who didn’t exercise.
If you’re dragging, the best thing to do is get moving. Researchers at the University of Georgia found that when subjects who complained of fatigue worked out for just 20 minutes three times per week, their energy levels got a 20 percent boost. Plus, their level of fatigue was reduced by 65 percent.
How to Get Started: Don’t think you have to commit to an intense cardio workout regimen to start reaping mind-body benefits. “Working out for just 15 minutes two to three times per week can help reduce anxiety and depression, build self esteem and increase your energy level,” says Weems.
Once you’ve gotten comfortable with two or three quick cardio sessions per week, you can work up to longer, more frequent workouts to boost the benefits even more. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests aiming for either two and a half hours of moderate-intensity exercise every week, or one hour and 15 minutes of high-intensity exercise. How do you know what’s what? “Think of moderate-intensity as a six on a scale of one to 10, and high-intensity as an eight on that same scale,” says Chertok.
As far as what cardio activity to choose, the answer is simple—anything you like! “The choices are so wide, from running to line dancing to fitness walking to kickboxing,” says Weems. “Just choose something you enjoy doing.” If you want, there’s no need to even leave your living room. “Buy a video console like the Nintendo Wii,” suggests Chertok.
A recent study makes a great case for hitting the weights, no matter what your age: Researchers found that older women who participated in strength training sessions once or twice a week for a year improved their cognitive function by up to 15 percent. “Strength training would likely have cognitive benefits for younger women as well,” says study author Teresa Liu-Ambrose, Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia. The reason? “Resistance training increases levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), both of which are beneficial for brain health,” explains Dr. Liu-Ambrose.
Better Body Image
“Strength training increases your metabolic rate and lean muscle mass,” says Weems. True, those are physical benefits, but when your body looks healthy, toned and strong, you’ll feel better about yourself. “When women participate in resistance training, they get positive feedback from their friends and family,” says Dr. Liu-Ambrose.
It’s not just a brisk run that can put a smile on your face. A study done at Harvard found that 10 weeks of resistance training helped to reduce symptoms of clinical depression in elderly patients. “It feels good to complete a workout,” says Chertok. “It makes us feel accomplished, and gives us a sense of control over our ability to become healthier and happier.”
How to Get Started: If you have limited experience with weights, think about purchasing a few sessions with a personal trainer at your local gym. “A certified personal trainer can teach you about proper form, make sure you’re using the appropriate weights, and doing the right amount of repetitions,” says Chertok.
For beginners, Weems recommends working one muscle group one to two times per week, for 10-15 minutes. “Try one set of wall push-ups—aim for 10 reps—twice a week, along with some basic squats. If you feel good about your progress, add another muscle group,” she says. “The focus should be on feeling good, having more energy and feeling successful about your accomplishments before you move on to the next level.”
Better Body Image
As every woman knows, body image is a tricky thing—some days, your mirror seems like it should be in a fun house rather than in your bedroom. Participating on a sports team can help you see your body for what it really is: healthy and strong. Want proof? Research from the University of Florida shows that girls who take part in sports are 31 percent more satisfied with their bodies than those who sit on the sidelines. Another study done at the University of North Dakota found that college women who didn’t participate in a sport expressed more dissatisfaction with their bodies than those who did.
Improved Performance at the Office
You know the expression “team player”? Exactly. When you’re playing a sport, you’re part of a group that’s working for a common goal, just like you are at the office. “Being part of a sports team can enhance connectedness, social support and bonding among friends,” says Chertok. These benefits can translate to the workplace, helping you make better decisions, build relationships with colleagues and meet goals.
How to Get Started: “Don’t feel compelled to fit into a sport,” says Chertok. “Instead, find a sport that that fits your needs and characteristics. Think of a sport you’ve always enjoyed watching, and see if it’s offered locally.” Check the bulletin board at your local gym or community center, or visit MeetUp.com and search for a team near you. “You want to do something you enjoy, and make sure the atmosphere is friendly and pleasant,” says Bar. Aim for one session per week, working up to more if your schedule allows.
PILATES, GYROTONIC AND STRETCHING
Popping an over-the-counter pain reliever isn’t your only option for banishing aches and pains. A study done at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, found that after four weeks of Pilates classes, patients who suffered from chronic low back pain experienced less pain than patients who received only a consultation with a doctor. What’s more, subjects reported that benefits were maintained over a period of 12 months.
Ever feel your brain getting foggy once 3 or 4 o’clock sets in? Instead of heading to the coffee machine for a caffeine fix, try taking a stretch break. A study conducted with employees of a call center in Brazil found that when subjects took a 10-minute break that included stretching, they reported improved concentration and memory, and also made fewer mistakes when speaking to callers.
“Pilates, stretching and Gyrotonic (strengthening and stretching done on machines) all stimulate different brain areas associated with improved mood and reduced anxiety, in the same way that yoga does,” says Chertok. They also promote mind-body awareness, and give you a sense of accomplishment and empowerment.
How to Get Started: As with yoga, it’s a good idea to take a class to learn the basics of Pilates or Gyrotonic. “When you’re just starting out, one-on-one interaction with a specialist may be most beneficial,” says Chertok. Sign up for a Pilates class at your gym, or find a studio in your area that specializes in Gyrotonic. Start out with one class per week, working up to three one-hour sessions weekly.
As far as stretching: “Stretching can and should be performed each day,” says Chertok. Incorporate simple stretches into your everyday routine, holding each for 20 seconds. Here are two you can sneak in at the office:
Neck Stretch: Curve your right arm over your head, so your hand is holding your left ear. Gently pull down towards the direction of your right hip, then repeat on other side. “The neck often gets tight during the stress of everyday life,” says Chertok. “This will help.”
Quadriceps Stretch: Stand up and use one hand to grab hold of a stationary object for balance. Use the opposite hand to grasp your leg around the ankle, lifting it toward your butt. Repeat on other leg.
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