Typically, the first thing we look to for managing mental health conditions is medication. It’s understandable to default to this solution. No one wants severe depression or anxiety to stick around, and prescribed medication can often provide the quickest solution. But quick fixes often don’t prove to be so helpful in the long term. There are other, truly effective ways to improve mental well-being than relying solely on drugs.
One of these other ways is movement. Studies have shown that getting your body moving can be more effective than prescription medication for treating depression and anxiety. Regular physical activity can lift mood, reduce stress, and alleviate symptoms of mental health disorders. Let’s take a look at why physical movement can be a more effective treatment than drugs for mental health conditions.
Side Effects of Taking Medication for Mental Health
The use of antidepressants has become increasingly prevalent in recent years with more than 40 million Americans taking these drugs. Unfortunately, these drugs can have negative short-term and long-term side effects. For example, prescription antidepressants can cause headaches, nausea, abnormal thoughts, and severe restlessness. Long-term use can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms and can actually make depression worse while increasing suicidal thoughts and tendencies. Regular exercise, on the other hand, has no such side effects—short or long term.
The Link Between Exercise and Mental Well-being
Believe it or not, physical movement can do wonders for your mental state. The human body releases endorphins, which can produce positive feelings and reduce anxiety, when engaging in regular exercise. Exercise also increases the production of serotonin and norepinephrine, which can improve mood and give a boost of energy, in the brain.
Exercise boosts a person’s self-efficacy and sense of empowerment, which becomes particularly important when experiencing a sense of helplessness or hopelessness. It is common for people experiencing depression to feel like they are unable to control anything that happens in their lives. Exercise can work to reestablish a sense of autonomy and mastery over one’s body and challenge and change negative thought patterns, which can improve overall mood and outlook on life.
Another benefit of exercise is that it provides a healthy mental distraction. Anxiety and depression can be consuming, and sometimes it can feel like these conditions control our lives like a never-ending cycle of negative thinking that we are unable to overcome. In contrast, exercise provides a positive focus for the mind and body. Engaging in physical activity can help calm one’s mind and provide a sense of direction and productivity, which can break the cycle of rumination.
One thing to keep in mind is that more and more exercise is not always better. The same studies that have shown a positive connection between movement and mental health have also shown that a “sweet spot” of 45-minute sessions 3-5 days a week helped reduce the most mental load, whereas much longer sessions actually increased stress levels.
To summarize, physical movement is a natural, healthy way to manage mental health and to gain control over one’s life with no negative side effects. If you are looking to get off of mental health medications and pursue more natural ways of managing your mental health, always be sure to discuss the process with a licensed physician to help you best avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.