We’ve know for a long time that physical exercise is beneficial, you know, physically. But does exercise positively affect mental health? While researching this topic, I ran across a study from the mid-1970s. More recent studies confirm what researchers have known for some time: exercise is good for your mental health.
Back in 1996, my exercise regimen consisted of walking between the couch and the refrigerator for beer and food. Oh, and mowing the lawn. I was horribly depressed, and was using food and alcohol to self-medicate. You see, our brains release a chemical called dopamine when we do something that feels good. Eating, sex, drugs, and alcohol are just a few examples of things that release dopamine (Breene).
Unfortunately, booze had become my master. In October 1996, I checked myself into an inpatient treatment facility. A week and a half later, I emerged sober, scared, and, no longer using booze as a crutch, I realized that I was depressed. I went to my primary care physician, and was prescribed an antidepressant. I have been taking an antidepressant ever since.
Over the years, I went through periods where I would exercise, but I could never maintain the commitment needed to see any real, long-lasting results. My weight crept up and up, and my self-esteem plummeted. In 2012, I purchased a cheap mountain bike and began riding on a regular basis. The results, though not instantaneous, did come. My weight leveled off, and then went down a bit. It still isn’t where I want it to be, but I’m in control now, and I feel better about myself knowing that I am at least active and exercising on a regular basis. This is consistent with the self-image hypothesis, which suggests that “physical activity has positive effects on body weight and body structure, leading to positive feedback from peers and improved self-image, and ultimately improving mental health” (Association for Psychological Science).
In 2012, I managed to ride 368 miles, which was not bad considering I suffered a knee injury that required surgery in November. I set a goal of 405 miles for 2013, which was an increase of 10% over my mileage total in 2012. I shattered that, logging 811 miles – still not a lot by serious bicycling standards, but I felt pretty good about it. Realizing that bicycling was something I really enjoyed, I purchased a new, albeit bottom-of-the-line Trek road bike.
Using the previous year’s strategy, I tacked 10% onto last year’s total mileage, and set a goal of 892 miles for 2014. As of this writing (the first week of June), I have thus far ridden 501 miles, putting me on pace to hit nearly 1,200 miles by year’s end.
Why am I telling you about my bicycle riding? Rest assured, it’s not done out of a need to boast. Exercise in the form of bicycle riding has become an integral part of my life. When I can ride on a consistent basis, I feel better, both physically and mentally. When I can’t ride for an extended period, my health – particularly my mental health – suffers. I had my first ride of 2014 on January 1st, a ride of less than six miles, but it was a start. The harsh winter kept me off of my bicycle for two months, a very difficult period of time for me. My depression was as bad, if not worse, than it had ever been. There were days, overcome by waves of sadness and anger, that I didn’t want to get out of bed. But I trudged on, watching the weather, looking for a chance to ride. Finally, on March 1, I got back onto my bicycle. I managed over 140 miles in March. There were some cold rides, but I began to pull out of the funk I was in. Now I’m back to my normal, chipper self.
Very recently, I had a bad day – a very bad day. I won’t go into details, but I was in a bad place mentally when I arrived home from work. I had planned a ride for that particular evening, fifteen miles on the Cardinal Greenway, while my youngest daughter was at basketball practice. As it turned out, I wouldn’t need to stay near the school because my daughter was going to go home with a friend after practice for an overnight stay. I was in a bad mood, and had no desire to ride. This was the perfect excuse for me not to ride! Then, the rational part of my brain kicked me in the seat of the pants and said, “Riding is exactly what you need to do, dumbass!” I gave in, and after dropping my daughter off at the school, I went for a fifteen-mile ride. During the ride, I enjoyed the sights and sounds and smells of being outdoors, watched the wildlife on and around the trail, and peddled away much of the anger and frustration I had been feeling.
Maybe bicycling isn’t your thing. The type of exercise doesn’t matter. What matters is getting and staying active. As someone who has been diagnosed with depression, I can honestly say that exercise has made all the difference in the world. Now, if I can just stay away from pizza and chicken wings…
Breene, Sophia. “13 Mental Health Benefits Of Exercise.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 05 June 2014.
“Exercise Does a Body – and a Mind – Good.” Association for Psychological Science. N.p., 25 Sept. 2012. Web. 05 June 2014.