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It’s no secret that fitness is an important factor for sustaining good mental health and overall well-being. But depending on what you’re dealing with—whether that be depression, anxiety, or even ADHD—different types of exercise may better suit your needs.
“Overall, we like everybody to get sustained aerobic activity,” neuroscientist and author of Biohack Your Brain, Kristen Willeumier, Ph.D., explained in a recent episode of the mindbodygeen podcast, noting that it’s been shown “to grow new new neurons in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain critical for learning and memory.”
Nevertheless, she adds, she has specific recommendations for fitness, depending on what you’re dealing with.
If you have ADHD, which can cause all sorts of problems related to focus and sustained attention, Willeumier says the best option for you is likely HIIT training.
“High intensity interval training helps to boost dopamine in the brain,” she notes, which gives you that increase of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex. (According to research, people with ADHD may have a higher concentration of dopamine transporters in the brain, which means they can remove dopamine from brain cells rather quickly.) Even boxing, Willeumier adds, can have a similar effect, making those two options a good bet.
When it comes to depression, Willeumier advises people to do more sustained aerobic activity, specifically for 30 to 45 minutes. “That really helps to boost serotonin, which is calming to the brain,” she explains. Aerobic exercise means things like running, swimming, biking, the elliptical, or even brisk walking.
As far as anxiety goes, you’ll want to look for activities that are more calming and contemplative, Willeumier suggests. Yoga can certainly fit the bill—but even walking in nature, she adds, can help. And while meditation isn’t necessarily “exercise,” it’s certainly a practice that may help. You can even make your walk in nature meditative, to get two birds with one stone. Plus, outside you’re also getting the added benefit of more vitamin D, which certainly never hurts.
It’s important to stay active no matter what, but particularly if you’re dealing with a mental health condition. Of course, more research is necessary before we can, say, prescribe these workouts as treatment for certain mental health conditions—but it’s interesting to hear the science behind how each practice can affect the brain in different ways.
Finding the type of exercise that works best for you, and helps you manage any mental health symptoms, can go a long way in increasing your overall mental and physical health.