How exercise improves mental health: 3 Reasons for caregiver families to start moving
You already know that exercise builds cardiovascular endurance and stronger bones, improves flexibility and balance, and helps you maintain a healthy weight.
Did you know it also improves your mental health?
It’s May, it’s National Mental Health Awareness Month, and here in the Pacific Northwest the weather and magnificent landscape beckon us outside.
Go for a walk because it’s the perfect time for a little exercise. The air is cool and crystal fresh, yards and parks are bursting with blooms and spring greenery, and the sun is showing itself more often.
Go for a walk because it’s time to shake off winter’s gray coat and clear your brain fog. You’ve probably stayed indoors more than usual over the past year.
Go for a walk because it’s the best exercise around. It’s free, requires no special equipment, and can be as brisk or leisurely as you want. Give yourself a chance to enjoy where you are and what you’re doing.
Walking, among many other forms of exercise, is not only good for your mental health, it also improves it.
Here’s something that might surprise you. Those who exercise regularly say their main reason for doing it is because it results in a sense of well-being.
Research shows that exercise simply makes you feel better – more content, more relaxed, and more confident. Because exercise like walking improves blood flow to the body and brain, the central nervous response system is impacted and you feel calmer and more relaxed.
Dear seniors and caregiver families, exercise is for everyone regardless of age or ability. Exercise – even in short bursts, and even for those who are new to it – adds mentally healthy life to your years.
Here are three reasons to start moving.
1. Even minimal exercise offers surprising benefits to your mental health.
Inactivity is a bad actor when it comes to your physical, mental, and cognitive health. It increases the risk for chronic diseases, particularly among older adults. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer are more prevalent among people with inactive lifestyles. Lack of physical activity can aggravate feelings of anxiety and depression.
The antidote for inactivity? Exercise. Exercise prevents inactivity. And even short periods of movement can have immediate effects on your mood and mental energy, according to Sanjay Gupta, MD, author of Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age.
Exercise is not just for building muscle, it also reduces muscle tension. Older people tend to suffer more muscle cramps and spasms, partly due to inactivity. The loss of muscle mass with aging and the muscle tension that accompanies it means that important nutrients and oxygen are in short supply. Exercise helps blood flow which oxygenates and nourishes muscles.
Improved muscle tension means less discomfort, which helps you feel calmer and more balanced.
Exercise stimulates the production of important brain chemicals like dopamine, which creates feelings of pleasure, and serotonin, which helps to regulate mood. It also releases endorphins, which temporarily reduce pain and produce a sense of well-being.
As you age you’re more likely to experience sleep disturbance and without the benefit of regular, deep sleep you may experience higher levels of stress and anxiety. Exercise helps to improve sleep quality, which is a factor in minimizing stress.
While exercise is not a treatment for clinical depression, there’s evidence it can help ease symptoms of depression. Aerobic exercise, like brisk walking, running, cycling, or swimming offers the most benefit, but lower-intensity body movements like yoga or Qigong can be beneficial as well.
Even though you expend energy during exercise, regular movement actually boosts your energy level in general. More energy means being more alert and engaged. Better sleep, a more positive mood, and improved circulation all contribute to additional energy and simply feeling better.
Exercise can be a confidence booster. One immediate benefit is a feeling of accomplishment. You did it! If you’ve chosen something you enjoy, you’ll look forward to it. If you’ve achieved some goals, you can pat yourself on the back. Over time, with many of the benefits listed above, your general sense of well-being will make you feel better about yourself.
Even though the correlation between physical exercise and creativity is not solid, many people believe that movement can enhance creative thinking. Author’s note: I’m one of those people who rely on daily walks to spark ideas for my writing. I’m a believer, along with John F. Kennedy who said,
“Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.”
2. It’s never too late to start exercising.
Even if you’ve never exercised regularly, or it’s been several years since you engaged in physical activity, you can still reap the benefits of adding movement to your day.
Start by talking to your health care provider, who can help you make a plan based on your current health. They can advise you on what to avoid, whether any of your medical conditions might limit your activity, and how to take your medications and schedule into account to ensure you’re off to a safe start.
- Think about why and how you plan to get into an exercise habit. Here are a few things to consider.
- What do you want to achieve? Simply moving more is the key to improving many aspects of your health, so the purpose of declaring a goal is really about watching your progress over time.
- What obstacles do you need to overcome? Maybe you don’t enjoy exercising, you don’t have enough time, you worry about falling or injury, or you have limited mobility.
- Do you want to exercise by yourself, with a friend, in a class, or with a personal trainer? Think about how important social interaction is and also consider safety – being with at least one other person makes sense.
- Do you want to be at home, outdoors, or at a fitness facility? What’s something you can start with that’s easy and low impact? (hint: walking is the best thing around)
- Will you keep track of your activity? A calendar or journal with the type of exercise you did and how much time you spent can provide a satisfying bit of motivation to keep going.
The US Department of Health and Human Services (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion) has published this activity planner. Find over 50 types of physical movement based on your interests.
The YMCA of Greater Seattle partners with local healthcare systems to offer healthy living programs for older adults. There are a variety of fitness options available, along with personal wellness planning. Virtual and in-person classes which focus on chronic disease prevention and management are available throughout King County.
Build time into your day for exercise. Older adults and caregivers can all benefit.
3. There are ways to be active that don’t seem like exercise.
Hate to exercise? Have some fun while you ramp up your activity. Making exercise enjoyable is the best way to create a habit of it.
The key to success? Move in a way that leaves you feeling better than when you started and do it regularly.
- Go for a walk and photograph your surroundings. Keep a written journal of your outings.
- Instead of sitting over coffee with a friend, get outside and chat as you walk around the block or a nearby park.
- Extend the length of your walk by tuning in to a podcast – whether you’re listening to a conversation or a story, you’ll be absorbed and time will fly. Maybe you’ll learn something new.
- Wear a fitness tracker (pedometer) and compete with yourself. Set a goal and watch your progress – it’s rewarding.
- Try “exercise snacks.” This activity is a way of breaking up exercise into several short sessions throughout the day. Originally suggested as a way to control blood sugar by doing intense bursts of activity, it’s also a trick to get more exercise into your day by doing short intervals of movement every hour or so. Take a couple of trips up and down the stairs. March in place. Do seated leg kicks. Make your exercise snacks short and sweet. The intensity level is up to you.
- If gentle, introspective movement appeals to you, check out SeaCare’s post about basic yoga principles and moves HERE.
- Dance – turn up your favorite tunes and start moving, solo or with a partner.
- Play yard games with your grandchildren – croquet and bocce ball are low-impact favorites.
- Spend time gardening. Read about the positive effects of this activity on mental and physical health in an earlier SeaCare article HERE.
- If you’re not able to stand and walk without assistance, do some chair dance fitness. Choose your own tunes and move to rhythms that make you happy.
Ready for a walk? These local trails have lots to offer older adults and their families.
Trail Link is a good source for finding trails throughout Washington, including several in King County. Check the legend below each trail name and description to determine wheelchair accessibility.
If you have an opportunity to take a longer trip and leave the city behind, consider these accessible hikes in other parts of the state. And here are a number of easy, scenic trails with minimal obstacles that are suitable for those who are not wheelchair limited.
At SeaCare we work with caregiver families to promote all aspects of your loved one’s health. Contact us to learn more.
Katie Wright writes about aging and senior wellness from Bellingham, WA. You can read more about her here.
If you or a loved one you know are looking for additional support during this time and are interested in scheduling a free in-home assessment, please contact SeaCare In-Home Care Services today! A SeaCare family member is standing by. 425-559-4339.