Get up, get out, be active! – OutSmart magazine

OWe’ve all been there. You told yourself all day that you were going for a walk in the park or working out at the gym. But then you find every excuse in the book for why you should stay home. Somehow, you finally convinced yourself to get off the couch and go out to exercise. After only 15 minutes of activity, you feel better and when you’re done, you feel really good.

Turns out it’s not just about endorphins. The phenomenon at work here, called behavioral activation, can greatly improve physical and mental health and is a key strategy for reducing depression and anxiety, as well as improving overall mental health and well-being.

What is Behavioral Activation?

First introduced by neuroscientists in the 1960s, the concept of behavioral activation originally referred to a method of conceptualizing how antidepressants work. For example, antidepressants were thought to alleviate depression by improving your mood and improving your sleep, but also by increasing your motivation to participate in activities. Behavioral activation in the brain was considered central to the pharmacological treatment of depression.

In the 1990s, behavioral activation was defined more narrowly to focus on its role in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is used to treat a variety of mental health issues, including depression. Not only does CBT focus on changing thought patterns, it also encourages people to participate in activities aimed directly at reducing negative feelings and low moods.

More recently, behavioral activation has been studied as a stand-alone treatment for depression. In these cases, behavioral activation is used to increase participation in positive and rewarding activities that can alleviate depression.

Although there is still debate about the use of behavioral activation techniques outside of the therapeutic concept, it is generally accepted that becoming active and participating in “antidepressant behaviors” can reduce feelings of sadness and patterns of negative thoughts.

Why does it work?

There are a number of biological and psychological reasons why behavioral activation works. As mentioned earlier, endorphins are released when we participate in vigorous exercise. Endorphins are endogenous opioid neuropeptides, or chemicals in the brain that stimulate opioid receptors. These neurochemicals contribute to an overall sense of reward by creating feelings of well-being and mild euphoria. The term “runner’s high” is not quite a misnomer. Your brain actually creates chemicals that encourage you to participate in activities that are good for you. Additionally, exercise can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night.

We can also benefit from behavioral activation from a psychological perspective. Setting concrete goals is a great way to structure your day. While we all need time to relax and unwind, constantly moving through your day without any sense of structure can leave you listless. Additionally, creating structure can reduce chronic distractions from social media or Netflix. Meeting goals and expectations makes you feel good by creating a sense of accomplishment. Honestly, who couldn’t use that feeling of victory once in a while?

Participation in positive activities may also decrease participation in negative activities that worsen feelings of depression. Exploring hobbies, spending time in the park, or exercising at the gym can reduce time spent using alcohol (a central nervous system depressant) or other substances that can have a negative impact on mood. Activities also provide opportunities to build community and develop healthier relationships with like-minded people.

In some clinical trials, behavioral activation was as effective as antidepressants or psychotherapy in treating depression. While psychotherapy and medication are important (and, for many, vital) parts of a comprehensive treatment approach, the potential positive impact of just getting up and moving around cannot be overstated.

Get up, get out, be active

Now that the COVID restrictions have started to be lifted, it’s a great time to think about how you could become more active. First, start by setting achievable goals and creating an action plan.

You may be able to resume some activities that may have declined over the past two years. As they say, “it’s like riding a bike”. Rediscovering old hobbies is a great place to start.

Set alarm clocks and timers to help structure. Alarms can remind you when an activity can begin and end optimally. Additionally, setting your smartphone to alert you to excessive screen time can create more time to engage in activities that provide connection rather than distraction.

Maybe you don’t know which activities to choose. See this uncertainty as an opportunity for exploration and adventure. There’s a whole world of activities you could get involved in. Maybe you can start by walking while listening to music, podcasts, or audiobooks. Perhaps you can take on an art project to explore your creative side.

It can be especially nice to choose something that you won’t try to force yourself to be good at. Remember, it’s about the process rather than the product.

And remember that sometimes two is better than one. Invite a friend to participate in activities with you. You can partner up and hold each other accountable, which increases the likelihood that you will stick to your plan of action.

What if exercise wasn’t enough?

In some cases, activity and exercise are not enough to effectively manage depression and anxiety. The effects of training may not improve your mood or reduce your worry long enough to reduce thoughts of self-harm or combat feelings of worthlessness.

While exercise and recreation are an important part of overall health that can simply improve your sense of being alive, there are other mental health issues such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia where new activities alone may not be an effective treatment. In these cases, seeking help from your primary care clinician or a trained mental health professional is an important next step in promoting optimal mental well-being.

This article appears in the March 2022 issue of OutSmart magazine.

About Dianne Stinson

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