How Exercise Improves Mental Health
The importance of combating conditions like depression cannot be overstated, and the recent pandemic has only exacerbated America’s mental health crisis. Exercise has been a great outlet for many to cope with the stress.
The team here at FightCamp wanted to know more about the impact of exercise on our emotional and mental wellbeing, and how boxing fits into an effective exercise program.
We spoke with neuropsychologist Dr. Julie Brody Magid, Clinical Director of the McLean Memory Disorders Assessment Clinic and an Instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School in the Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Brody Magid has seen firsthand how critical exercise is to mental health, and how the pandemic has underscored its importance.
“There are a lot of people who are struggling, it’s no surprise that the pandemic has been compromising a lot of peoples’ mental health,” she says. “I have always been very prescriptive about exercise, but even more so now.”
A Direct Hit For Depression
Most people with a regular exercise routine will attest to feeling a ‘post-workout high’. This is backed up by science, with multiple studies revealing that as little as 15 minutes of physical activity can trigger an improved mood.
“There have been thousands of studies on exercise and mental health. Even 15 minutes a day helps people report better emotional wellbeing,” says Dr. Brody Magid. “Even that brief of a burst can reduce the risk of developing depression, and can help some people start to come out of depression.”
Exercise releases an array of feel-good chemicals in the brain called endorphins. Studies show that the more rigorous the exercise, the greater the benefit. Higher intensity exercises prove to be most effective, while lower intensity exercises take longer durations to have the same effect.
The intensity of a boxing workout makes it ideal for getting your endorphins pumping in a shorter time, but its benefits for mental health don’t stop there.
“Boxing training seems very well-positioned to promote mental health since it is empowering and makes you feel strong, resilient, focused,” says Dr. Brody Magid.
Moreover, exercise such as boxing can bring other healthy habits into balance.
Aligning With a Healthy Lifestyle For Mental Wellness
Adopting a healthy lifestyle is essential to both physical and mental health, and exercise can be a cornerstone to making the changes needed.
Dr. Brody Magid explains that the most integral elements of a healthy lifestyle that promotes mental wellness include:
- At least seven (7) hours of sleep per night
- Consistent bedtimes/wake up times
- Using the bedroom only for sleep and sex
- Keeping the bedroom cool and quiet
- No TV in the bedroom and no devices one (1) hour before sleep
- Minimizing use of caffeine and alcohol
- Mediterranean-style diet
- Emphasis on:
- Lean protein
- Fruits and vegetables
- Healthy fatty acids
- Consistent intake of meals and snacks to keep blood sugar regulated
- Limiting processed foods and concentrated sugars
- 30 minutes per day of moderate exercise, five (5) days per week
These three (3) factors, in conjunction with solid social support and any necessary therapy and/or medication, form the foundation of mental wellness. Making a change in just one of these factors, like establishing an exercise regimen, will have a stabilizing effect on all the other elements.
“Sleep hygiene, diet, and exercise all align,” says Dr. Brody Magid. Exercise in particular seems to have the most power in re-enforcing a lifestyle overhaul. “Exercise starts to turn the tide. People become more health-conscious and more aware of how they’re treating their bodies… You hear people who say: ‘I’ve been on the couch for a year and now I’ve just started an exercise program. Now I’m actually paying attention to what I’m eating…I don’t want to waste my effort by eating a bunch of garbage.’”
It’s easy to see how exercise can act as the catalyst in adopting all three (3) pillars of a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise can cause the body to actually crave healthier, more nourishing foods like those recommended in a Mediterranean-style diet (which is, interestingly enough, nearly parallel to a boxer’s diet). After an intense workout and a well-balanced meal, getting a solid seven hours of sleep comes much more easily.
Dr. Brody Magid explains that establishing consistency in one’s sleep, diet, and exercise helps maintain stability of body and mind, so that when feelings of stress arise, you have a stronger ability to cope. Simply setting the intention to make better lifestyle choices, then taking the action steps towards your goal, is a key ingredient to a healthier mindset.
The evidence behind exercising for better mental health is clear. The pandemic has added even more unmeasurable stress to everyone’s lives, and cut us off from most of those things that normally help us cope. Adopting healthier lifestyle choices is something we still have the power to do, even in our own homes.
Starting with an exercise routine can help all of the other pieces fall into place. Once you get started, it will only get easier to push forward towards your goals. The holistic approach of boxing training - from mindful, focused drills to a well-rounded diet - offers all the elements needed to improve both your physical and mental wellbeing.
The Author: Mollie McGurk is a fitness enthusiast who has trained in boxing, HIIT boxing, kickboxing and MMA for over 10 years. Her local boxing gym has hosted champion instructors including the ‘Iceman’ John Scully and Israel ‘Pito’ Cardona. Mollie has also studied personal training through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) program.