Visits to gyms and collegiate rec facilities are gradually returning to pre-COVID levels, and gym-related internet searches are at a two-year high. A growing interest in gym-based workouts is helping the fitness industry recover, and also helping gym-goers address mental health challenges.
An active lifestyle reduces the symptoms of stress-related disorders such as depression. Over the past two years, more than one in three individuals has struggled with depression symptoms. The pandemic increased daily sitting time by 28 percent worldwide, and many are not yet back to pre-COVID levels of fitness or physical activity.
Gyms offer environments that check many of the boxes when it comes to a list of ideal features for promoting wellbeing.
If the pandemic reinforced one lesson on which we can all agree, it may be the importance of social connections.
During lockdowns, rates of loneliness peaked, affecting 65 percent of adults. Those who live alone and women were most vulnerable. Across age categories, young adults were the most susceptible, with almost half struggling with loneliness during the pandemic.
Loneliness is associated with a lower capacity for self-care behaviors and is a risk factor for depression. Almost one in five diagnoses of depression involve a high degree of loneliness.
When our social needs are not being met, our motivation is often reduced across many areas of our lives, including exercise.
Even if social interactions are limited at the gym, each visit connects gym-goers to the community. This can raise the level of social accountability and helps gym visitors to exercise more consistently. And every workout is a reminder that we are not alone in our drive for self-improvement.
Higher social engagement at the gym builds a network of support. Gym-goers connect with others who can help them overcome setbacks and plateaus. As social capital is developed, research suggests that we gravitate toward self-care habits such as better sleep and healthier food choices. All of this helps us feel better on a daily basis.
The social setting of a gym offers a positive direction of focus and improves exercise adherence. In fact, social support is one of the most consistent factors that helps us achieve an active lifestyle.
Enjoy the exercise high
Fitness facility operators can encourage repeated facility visits by drawing attention to the mood benefits of exercise. Low-intensity workouts can help us reach a calm state of mind, but the greatest mood improvements result from moderate to high-intensity activity.
Gyms provide many options for getting the heart rate up, and most people reach higher exercise intensities at the gym compared to at-home workouts. Some studies suggest the intensity advantage of gyms is due to a desire to seek positive regard from others.
One reason an exerciser's mood is lifted by intensity is that most of the feel-good brain chemicals released by physical activity depend on our level of perceived exertion. A single workout can drive many brain changes, but one involved in combating depression is the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
BDNF is considered protective against depression because it improves the function of brain regions that help us handle stress. Brain cells are damaged and sometimes die due to prolonged experiences of stress, but BDNF aids brain cell survival and facilitates the creation of new connections and new memories. Individuals who suffer from major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder or suicidal ideation have significantly lower BDNF levels than unaffected individuals. Though not a cure, exercise can ease depression symptoms at rates that are comparable to antidepressant medications.
Exercise and meds boost BDNF
Antidepressants increase levels of BDNF over several weeks — an increase also possible from about 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. This doesn’t mean that all antidepressants could be replaced with gym visits, because those data were based on averages across individuals. Instead, exercise should be included as part of a comprehensive depression treatment plan. Depression severity is lower when aerobic exercise is added to the treatment plan of those individuals who are already taking antidepressants.
Depression can be highly debilitating. In some cases, even light forms of exercise may not be possible, so it’s important to continue to trial antidepressants and other medications and therapy options for treating serious mental health challenges.
When a person is diagnosed with depression, they usually experience at least one more bout of depression in the future. Studies have followed individuals with depression after interventions to receive antidepressants, placebo pills, exercise at a gym, or a combination of treatments. After one year, researchers found that the amount of regular exercise completed predicted the severity of depression symptoms.
Exercise for emotional resilience
The positive impact of exercise on daily mood may be no surprise to those who continued their exercise habit through pandemic lockdowns. According to one study, during home confinement, “those more accustomed to regular exercise most effectively dealt with the psychological issues that arose.” Other studies on pandemic mental health arrived at similar conclusions, because there were “significant differences in depression prevalence … based on exercise habits.”
To some, working out is a way to drive physical changes they expect, but gym environments can also guide visitors to notice the unseen: how they feel. Improved mood, self-esteem and wellbeing precede any physical changes visible in the mirror, so it’s imperative that we continue to draw attention to the mental health gains that result from regular exercise.
Why reminders matter
Studies suggest that recognizing the enjoyable aspects of a workout requires conscious awareness and an intention to notice positive mood outcomes. Most gym-goers are biased to notice and remember the negative or difficult parts of the workout.
Facility operators can keep their clients returning by reminding them of the pleasant aftereffects. This is important, not only to counter our negative biases, but because we rarely over-anticipate how much better exercise makes us feel. For instance, one study asked adults to predict how their mood would change after a workout. This “affective forecasting” allows researchers to gauge our accuracy in predicting how exercise makes us feel. After the workout, participants were again surveyed. The results indicated that most of us significantly underestimate how much we’ll enjoy the total experience.
When gym staff, imagery and signage include reminders of how exercise improves mood, gym visits are more closely associated with mental health benefits. Many in the fitness industry are already doing a stellar job of emphasizing a “feel better” marketing strategy. Qualitative interviews reflect this shift in how we perceive the gym. Increasingly, exercisers associate the gym less with achieving a beach body and more as a place to “blow off some steam,” “hit the mood reset button” and “find my happiness.”
Given current events that continue to add to the global burden of stress, more gym visits may be part of the solution for brighter moods.
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