By Helena Reinders
Oftentimes, exercise is promoted as a way to improve one’s physical health. What people tend to forget, however, is that exercise can also drastically improve a person’s mental health. The first part of this article will focus on explaining the benefits of exercise for mental health, and how it can help when you are experiencing anxiety, stress or depression. For the second part of this article, I will tell you about several apps that I currently use and helped me when I had a burn-out.
First of all, what are the benefits of exercise for mental health? Research has proved that exercise oftentimes influences anxiety, depressive disorders and overall mental well-being. One of the reasons for this is that finishing a workout or run gives a sense of reward. This phenomenon is further explained in Personality Theory, and is often referred to as the concept of Behavioral Approach System (BAS). What’s more is that exercise can make you feel happier, a phenomenon better known as ‘runner’s high’. This is caused by the release of endorphins when you exercise. This feeling can then be made even stronger by the release of a marijuana-like chemical called endocannabinoids. Although this phenomenon is not directly addictive, it can be a stimulus for people to exercise.
Do mind though, that, as with anything, exercise should be enjoyed moderately. It is always important to listen to your body. If you are too tired or exercising hurts, you should never force yourself to (continue your) exercise. When you are experiencing anxiety or stress, exercising can help, but it is oftentimes not the sole solution. If you are experiencing stress or anxiety, reach out to your study-advisor, general practitioner or doctor, or just talk with a friend.
The next part of this article will be my personal story. Although reading about the benefits of exercise for one’s mental health tends to be informing, I believe a personal insight can oftentimes give better context. This is why I would like to share my story with you, and talk about how I got through my burn-out by exercising mindfully.
You see, during my last year of high school, I experienced a lot of stress and anxiety. The reason therefore being that I followed a special course in which you finish two years worth of courses in roughly 8 months. However, the stress I was experiencing ended up limiting my ability to study, as I lost focus more quickly, had trouble sleeping, and lost my appetite. Consequently, I experienced a burn-out, which made me decide to drop a few courses and pick those up a year later. This of course meant that I graduated one year later as well. Despite my workload being significantly cut, I still experienced anxiety and stress. This is when my study advisor encouraged me to pick up running. Now, I was not a big fan of sports, which is why I struggled to exercise regularly. Yet, every time I did go running I’d be happier and would have a new focus for my study.
While I tried several apps to help me maintain my workouts, only one really stuck: “Zombies, Run!”. The reason this app was, and to this day still is, able to get me away from my desk and up and running is the unique set-up of the storyline-based missions one has to complete. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the runner becomes Runner 5 of Abel Township. Through missions, you get to learn the details behind this alternative world, get to meet other runners and citizens, and become the hero of your own story. The app completely changed the way I looked at running, and even made me love the workouts I do without the use of the app. At first I tried the app on my own, without much of an idea of how to run. Later, I ended up following the “Zombies, Run! 5K Training” app, which teaches you how to run through the same storyline-based missions as the main app. Going on these runs, feeling the accomplishment of having finished yet another mission, and the overall improvement of my health really helped me get back on track with school. Sure, I ended up graduating one year later, but my mental well-being was in a much better place than it had been a year before.
For those of you out there who are currently experiencing anxiety or stress, I can highly recommend using these apps, as well as “The Walk: Fitness Tracker Game”. This app is also based on a storyline with different missions, but focuses on you walking rather than running. With the odd times we are currently facing, people are oftentimes advised to stay at home. This, too, can induce a feeling of anxiety. Working out within your home can be a great way to release some stress, get your blood running, and work on your mental well-being. Even if you do not feel comfortable going out on a run, I would still advise you to download the Zombies Run app. The makers of the app have made several “Home Front” missions available, which are playable without any prior knowledge of the game or storyline. Every week, a new mission is posted for you to clear from the safety of your own home. Once again, though, I would like to remind you that exercise can only help so much. If you are experiencing severe levels of stress, anxiety, or are feeling depressed, it is highly recommended to contact your study advisors or medical experts. Though, if you are simply looking for a complementary way of reducing stress or anxiety, exercise might just be the way to go.
Budde, H., & Wegner, M. (2018). The exercise effect on mental health: Neurobiological mechanisms (First ed.).
Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017). Exercise and mental health. Maturitas, 106, 48-56.
Spiegelman, B. (2017). Hormones, Metabolism and the Benefits of Exercise (1st ed. 2017. ed., Research and Perspectives in Endocrine Interactions).
Written with the approval of the makers of “Zombies, Run!”, “Zombies, Run! 5K Training” and “The Walk: Fitness Tracker Game”.
Edited by Chira Tudoran
Artwork by Chira Tudoran