Some may consider the mental health benefits of exercise to be an unusual subject. Usually when the topic of exercise enters the conversation, most people automatically think about building strength and endurance, gaining muscle, losing weight or body fat, and of course, working out for that coveted “beach body.”
While all of those rewards may be important to one degree or another, perhaps the best kept secret about regular physical activity is the powerful one-two-punch of exercise and mental health.
To receive the mental health benefits of exercise, it doesn’t mean that you have to start training like an Olympic athlete or, in fact, run out and join a CrossFit gym.
That’s because even moderate amounts of exercise, like a 30-minute brisk walk several times a week, can help improve our state of mind, outlook, and increase cognitive abilities.
“Intentionally moving your body in more gentle ways throughout the day – like walking, stretching, taking the stairs, doing the dishes – all can add up in good ways for improving your mood. I think that’s an encouraging message,” Karmel Choi, a clinical and research fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tells Harvard Health.
Here are 9 Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
There are wide array of perks to be found from regular physical activity, but here are some of the most common mental health benefits of exercise noted by doctors who specialize in mental illness.
1. Decreases the Symptoms of Depression
An interesting fact is that exercise and depression may be more intertwined than previously understood. Symptoms of depression can include things like fatigue, body aches, and sleep issues – making exercise feel like an impossibility.
There is plenty of evidence that simply taking an hour-long walk or jogging for 15 minutes a few times a week can decrease inflammation in the body, and promote a sense of peace and wellbeing. It can even be a meditative break from a cycle of unwanted thoughts and feelings.
Physical activity is such a powerful tool against depression that many therapists will suggest their patients develop a regular exercise regimen before they turn to antidepressant medications.
2. Soothes the Symptoms of Anxiety
Much like with depression, exercise and anxiety are also often linked together. A lack of consistent physical activity can allow the symptoms of anxiety to manifest and become worse over time.
Exercise, first and foremost, demands focus, which is an excellent way to take our minds away from whatever is causing the worry and fear. It also requires the body to redirect energy from these feelings and put it toward whatever physical activity we’re currently engaged in.
To further stave off the symptoms of anxiety, staying mindful during exercise, like focusing on the stretch of our muscles during a yoga session or monitoring our breathing during a run, helps to create an even greater sense of being grounded and mentally healthy.
3. Arrests the Symptoms of Stress
It’s no mystery that unchecked stress can be a precursor to both depression and anxiety. For the same reasons that regular exercise combats the symptoms of anxiety and depression, one of the biggest benefits of physical activity is that it is known to keep stress at bay.
Think about exercise as a release valve for the build up of tension in the neck, shoulders and jaw. It’s also quite effective as a natural painkiller for reducing the pain of stress-induced headaches.
Simply enjoying the outdoors with regular hikes, bike rides, or other physical activities that raise the heart rate for a period of time will not just decrease stress, but also lessen the likelihood that these symptoms will evolve into issues of depression or anxiety.
4. A Natural Shot of Endorphins
One of the main reasons exercise is so effective against stress, depression and anxiety is it induces the natural production of endorphins.
Endorphins are neurotransmitters in the brain responsible for feelings of pleasure, happiness, and even pain reduction.
What activities release endorphins?
There are many different ways to promote the release of endorphins, such as meditating, eating dark chocolate, or getting a massage. But exercise is always at the top of the list of ways to increase production of this important neurochemical.
By taking the time to exercise, we’re actively providing our brain with the fuel it needs to help it stay healthy and balanced.
5. Snoozing on the Surge of Serotonin
Another neurotransmitter that gets a boost from regular exercise is serotonin. It affects mood, energy, and helps to promote healthy sleep patterns. In fact, if you can exercise outside whenever possible, there’s the added benefit of sunlight, which helps in the production of serotonin as a natural sleep aid.
Getting the right amount of restful slumber, between 7 to 9 hours depending on the individual, is a key factor in maintaining good mental health.
6. Increased Ability to Concentrate
This might seem counterintuitive after a workout, because depending on the intensity of the exercise, concentrating when we’re worn out is sometimes difficult.
However, exercise increases yet another chemical in the brain called norepinephrine, which helps control our ability to focus and concentrate better.
Even a little bit of exercise, like a fast walk during a lunch break, can have you coming back to the conference table or classroom with more energy dedicated to productive problem solving.
7. Manages Addiction Triggers and Cravings
For those in addiction recovery, especially in the early stages, exercise can be an incredibly powerful tool for managing triggers and cravings.
Substance use disorders can disrupt the brain’s routine functioning and it often takes time for the brain’s natural balance to return to normal.
Exercise can help speed up the process by increasing the production of dopamine, often referred to as the “reward hormone,” which helps us experience pleasure and regulates mood.
Additionally, expending energy on a long run or a steep hike can give the body and mind time to move past cravings and into a more peaceful state of being.
8. Prevents Cognitive Decline
It’s no mistake that we’ve talked about all the various mood-boosting chemicals in the brain related to exercise.
Maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle keeps the mind balanced and helps create new brain cells. This is important when it comes to memory, creativity, and the ability, along with the energy, to learn and embrace new things.
Regular exercise is highly recommended by doctors for preventing cognitive decline, especially as we get older.
9. A Swelling of Self Confidence
It is incredibly easy to avoid exercise. But once you realize you’re walking up a steep hill, running farther, or a biking a distance you never would have thought possible just a few short months ago, there’s a instant surge of self-esteem and confidence that will only reinforce the positive mental health benefits of exercise, on both the body and mind.
It’s important to remember that exercise is not necessarily always easy, yet it is incredibly rewarding.
The true measure of success when it comes to regular physical activity is not how hard it was to workout, but how quickly you recover and how mentally strong you feel from it.
Dr. Elena Kapustina found her true calling and completed her PsyD in Clinical Psychology after earning her MBA and spending years working as the CFO for major corporations. She founded Iris Healing to holistically work with dual diagnosis patients in order to create a more sustainable recovery. From managing 1,000 employees to creating a top of the line treatment center, Dr. Kapustina harnesses her passion to create positive experiences for others.