Staying active for better mental health

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While the groundhog’s prediction this year of six more weeks of winter was right on target for many parts of the country, now that we’re firmly into spring it’s a great time to start thinking about being more active.

When most of us think of exercise it’s for the physical benefits it can provide, and there are many. Regular physical exercise can help trim your waistline, increase aerobic capacity, build muscle size, improve your sex life and even add years to your life.

But if that’s not enough to get you up and motivated to start getting more exercise, then you should also consider the mental health benefits being active can also bring. People who exercise on a regular basis report feeling more energetic during the day, sleeping better at night, having sharper memories and feeling more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives.

Exercise has also been shown to help with some specific mental health issues. Studies have found that an exercise program can often be a way to treat mild to moderate depression. Researchers find that in many cases it is as effective as antidepressant medication but without the side-effects that medications can bring.

Other studies have shown that staying physically active is an easy and very effective way to reduce anxiety and stress. When you’re paying attention to exercising you’re able to interrupt the flow of worries that too many of us have running through our brains throughout the day. At the same time, it’s been shown that when you’re active, your body is releasing endorphins in the brain, those natural hormones that help you feel better.

Even if you don’t have the time or inclination or ability to turn into a gym rat or a long distance runner, it doesn’t mean you should give up on the idea of being more physically active. While most studies recommend about 30 minutes of exercise a day for the best benefits, research also shows that even small amounts of physical activity are better than none.

Taking a 5 or 10 minute walk is a great way to start, and as you begin to do that regularly you’ll feel better both physically and mentally.

Yes, it’s easy to make excuses not to get more active, but get yourself started, even in small ways, and you’ll find the benefits far outweigh those excuses.

Counseling Corner is provided by the American Counseling Association. Send comments and questions to ACAcorner@counseling.org or visit www.counseling.org.

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