For some folks, the cold months of the year can be a haven for depression.
Year after year, more and more people are reporting mental health problems. Anxiety, depression, and eating disorders are just a few of the many mental health illnesses that plague people young and old across the country.
According to Mental Health America, “even before COVID-19, the prevalence of mental illness among adults was increasing.” (1) And now, as we continue in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health has continued to decline.
New statistics show that this year, “the number of people looking for help with anxiety and depression has skyrocketed.” From January to September, there’s been a 93% increase in the number of people that have taken anxiety screens, and a 62% increase in the total number of depression screens. (1)
Now, more than ever before, depression and anxiety are problems that can affect every aspect of your daily life.
While many times the causes of depression and anxiety are unknown, there are factors that increase your risk of depression. One recent study published in BMC Medicine discovered that people with low fitness levels “are almost twice as likely to experience depression.” (2)
The study even showed that “people with the lowest combined aerobic and muscular fitness were 98% more likely to have symptoms of depression, 60% more likely to have anxiety, and 81% more likely to have either anxiety or depression.” (2)
These results surprised researchers. They knew that there was a connection between mental health and physical activity, but they didn’t expect such a big difference. 98% – that’s a huge difference.
Everyone knows that physical activity is good for your heart, lungs, and muscles. But, it’s not common knowledge that it’s also good for your brain.
Dr. Celina Nadelman says “Physical activity improves cognitive functions; it improves attention, cognitive control of behavior, academic performance, memory, and has short- and long-term effects on mood and emotion, promising a positive effect and inhibiting a negative one.” (2)
When you exercise, your body naturally reduces cortisol (the stress hormone) and lowers your heart rate. Working out also releases endorphins (the feel-good hormones) that can improve your mood and mental health.
When you don’t exercise, healthy blood flow to your brain slows down. You get more stressed, health problems can start, and you can start to notice symptoms of depression. Dr. Nadelman says this can happen in as little as 10 days without healthy movement. (2)
If you aren’t in the habit of working out every day, getting started can be difficult. One easy exercise you can do to prevent depression and anxiety is walking. One study found that walking for even just 10 minutes a day was shown to improve your mood. (3)
Walking is a great way to relieve stress, breath in some fresh air, and spend time in the great outdoors. Walking in nature is a two-for-one – spending time in nature is also great for your mental health. One study found that people who “went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness.” (4)
Many psychologists and doctors recommend exercise to help combat symptoms of depression, and walking is an easy and manageable way to get started. You can start “walking away stress” by getting in the habit of going on a morning walk every day. (5) Even if you can only squeeze in 10 minutes to walk in the morning, you’ll start your day with a quick mood boost and create a new healthy habit.
With our chaotic world today, stress, depression, and anxiety have become part of all of our lives. Now, more than ever, mental health needs to be a priority. The good news is that physical health and mental health go hand in hand.
As you work to keep up your physical health, your mental health is also likely to improve. Exercise helps manage stress, improves your mental focus, and even helps to build your self-esteem.
So next time you’re feeling down, try stepping outside and going for a quick walk. If you live close to nature, spend an hour or two going on a hike or just taking a nature stroll. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the nice little mood boost these activities can bring.
Mental health problems can be serious and dangerous diseases, talk to your mental health care provider today if you need help.
There are many resources available online as well for more information about anxiety and depression. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor today if you feel like your mental health is becoming too hard to deal with alone.
1 Statistics from Mental Health America
2 Lower Fitness Levels Could Exacerbate Depression, Study Finds
3 The 10 Minute Walk Experiment
4 Nature Walks Reduce Depression in the Brain