As the country prepares to return to school and work this fall during a new wave of infections from the Delta variant of COVID-19, it is more important than ever to find healthy ways to control stress and anxiety. While exercise is important to trim our waistline or to speed up our metabolism, there may be more benefit to lacing up those sneakers than you’d think. Recent studies have established a link between exercise, stress and cognition, making physical activity even more important.
Exercise has been shown to improve sleep and mood, decrease stress, and even increase libido. It also can bolster our self-esteem and ability to problem-solve and to remember details. In fact, strength training has even been shown to reverse cognitive decline to a degree in aging adults with mild impairment. Though the medical community is still trying to elucidate exactly how exercise boosts our brains physiologically, increased circulation to the brain and modulation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis that regulates the body’s response to stress have been implicated as the bearers of benefit. While exercise can be advantageous for everyone, it perhaps is even more valuable to those struggling with mood disorders. Exercise can help combat anxiety and depression and quell the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as it helps the brain to pump out neurotransmitters and pain-fighting endorphins. Exercise makes addiction management easier, as well, and has recently been shown to help alcoholics lessen consumption.
So, how much exercise exactly is enough to illicit tangible cognitive benefit, you ask? Any amount of weight lifting, running, walking, or yoga helps, but habitual activity helps the most. Studies cite that a few consecutive weeks of participation in a fitness regimen yielded notable, positive results in subjects. Try to make exercise part of your daily routine to encourage good fitness habits. If you find the idea of adopting a strenuous new fitness program intimidating or off-putting, have no fear. Moderate exercise is enough to do the trick. The Mayo Clinic cites both brisk walking and mowing the lawn as examples of moderate activity, so an average fitness level is adequate for yielding positive mental results.
If you’re thinking about beginning an exercise program for the first time, start gradually. Begin with walking for 10 to 15 minutes twice daily, and add 1 or 2 minutes to your session every time you walk until you can walk continuously for 45 to 60 minutes. The same principle can be used when beginning other fitness routines involving biking, swimming, running, etc. Begin a weight training program to strengthen bones and tendons using 3 to 5 pound dumbbells, and increase the weight you use by a pound once you can easily perform 30 consecutive repetitions. Be careful to pay close attention to posture and form. Contact your physical therapist or a personal trainer for assistance with designing an appropriate exercise program. Don’t hesitate to contact your physician, either, if you have questions about whether a particular exercise program is safe and suitable for your age group or current fitness level.
Read Dr. Mackarey’s Health & Exercise Forum – every Monday. This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine.
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