How Can Exercise Benefit My Mental Health?

September 15, 2021

How Can Exercise Benefit My Mental Health?

We've all been told time and time again to get out and exercise. Gym teachers preach this advice to their young students, touting how working out can make them faster and stronger. Doctors also advise patients to get out and about, as exercising regularly can reduce the risk of conditions like cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes.

Although it's a universally accepted truth that exercise has many physical health benefits, many people are unaware of exercise's various mental health benefits. Below, we'll explore the benefits that working out can have on your mind.

The Many Mental Health Benefits of Exercise 

It's true — many people hit the gym to achieve washboard abs, bulging biceps, or lean legs. However, many folks commit to an active lifestyle to experience a sense of overall well-being. They don't only care about improving their physical health and physique. They also care about getting their mental wellness in check.

People find that when they incorporate exercise into their routines, they experience many mental benefits. They'll achieve more restful sleep, think more clearly, exhibit sharper cognitive abilities, and feel more energetic and positive overall. People have also found that exercise is a successful way to manage health challenges such as depression, anxiety, stress, ADHD, and others.

Before you start stressing out about needing to become a fitness guru, rest assured. You don't have to start benching 300 pounds or running sub-three-hour marathons to experience the mental benefits of exercise. Even modest levels of physical activity can have a positive impact on your mental health. Below, we'll explore five mental health benefits of exercise.

1. Fight Depression

When you are experiencing symptoms of depression, it seems like the last thing you may want to do is get yourself and your heart rate up. However, exercise is a proven mood booster, signaling the release of endorphins from your brain and spinal cord.

Endorphins are the body's “feel-good” chemicals that produce a euphoric-like effect. Have you ever heard of a runner's high? These waves of euphoria are your body's natural endorphins in action, giving you a jolt of happiness and energy. 

Not only does exercise increase the production of endorphins, but it also contributes to neural growth. Neural growth effectively reduces inflammation and fosters new neural activity patterns. Some mental health professionals prescribe an exercise regimen for their patients to treat mild to moderate depression before turning to medications. 

Dealing with depression can be debilitating, but getting out and focusing on your physical activity can help distract you from the negative thoughts that depression tends to incite.

2. Reduce Anxiety Symptoms

It's normal for people to face some feelings of stress and anxiety from time to time. But various anxiety disorders are the most common mental health conditions in the United States, affecting more than 40 million adults. Not only can anxiety disorders be stifling in day-to-day life, but they can also contribute to health problems like diabetes and cardiovascular disease in the future. 

Like how exercise can manage depression, it is also a non-medical solution for preventing and managing anxiety. Increasing your heart rate alters your brain chemistry, increasing vital anti-anxiety chemicals like serotonin, GABA, and endocannabinoids. Exercise also activates the frontal region of your brain, where the amygdala resides, which helps control our reactions to real or perceived threats to our survival. 

One report discovered that people with high levels of physical exercise had reduced anxiety symptoms compared to those who reported low levels of physical activity. However, you don't have to choose high-intensity physical training to add to your routine. Mindful movement practices of tai-chi or yoga can be very effective in your battle against anxiety and stress. 

3. Manage ADHD

Living with ADHD makes it especially hard to finish tasks, focus, and control your emotions. Many people struggling with this mental health challenge receive prescription drugs from their doctors to combat these issues.

People with ADHD tend to have far less dopamine (which is often called the “messenger chemical”) than usual in their brains. As a result, the type of stimulant medication used to treat ADHD signals the release of dopamine in the brain. It just so happens that when you exercise, one of the neurotransmitters released into the brain is dopamine. So it's easy to see why exercise is a natural mental health therapy for folks with this condition. 

Experts say that you can reap the benefits of exercise therapy by introducing a routine of moderate-intensity workouts for at least 150 minutes per week. However, if you're introducing high-intensity workouts, you can get away with 75 minutes a week. All forms of cardiovascular exercise seem to be the most effective in combating symptoms of ADHD, but you shouldn't underestimate the effectiveness of strength training. 

4. Improve Sleep

We've all felt the disastrous effects of getting a poor night's sleep. Not getting enough shut-eye can cause you to wake up feeling sluggish and irritated, and you'll likely have a hard time facing your responsibilities for the day.

But studies have found that some of the adult population experiences these issues regularly. Up to 15% of adults struggle with insomnia, the symptoms of which include having trouble falling or staying asleep multiple times a week. 

Exercise can improve insomnia symptoms in as little as four weeks because it relieves stress and anxiety and resets your body's internal clock. A disruption of your circadian rhythm can make your sleep schedule tilt off-kilter. But some forms of exercise boost your serotonin, which helps regulate your sleep. 

Be aware of the timing of your workouts when looking to aid your sleep since exercise can also increase your endorphin levels. It's best to avoid partaking in rigorous activity at least two hours before bed. Instead, you can stretch or do some light yoga during that timeframe for the best results. 

5. Manage PTSD

PTSD and trauma can result in many other mental health issues (like depression) down the line if you don't address them properly. In addition to reducing the symptoms of depression and anxiety, exercise programs can also help individuals manage symptoms of PTSD and similar disorders.

People suffering from PTSD have a learned nervous system immobilization stress response from experiencing a traumatic event. When you start focusing on the routine of moving your body, you'll help your nervous system move through this learned frozen response. 

A review of four randomized control trials testing the effects of regular exercise found that it significantly reduced the symptoms of PTSD and trauma. Activities that require intense focus, like swimming, dancing, weight training, or rock climbing, are some of the most therapeutic for PTSD and trauma. 

Other Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

There's no doubt that exercise can help individuals suffering from the above mental health challenges. But working out can also benefit individuals who don't have a history of mental health issues. Below, you can read about three excellent mental health benefits for regular gym-goers:

1. Increased Self-Esteem 

Regular physical activity is an investment in yourself. The benefits of getting stronger, improving your endurance, and increasing your flexibility can make you feel powerful and confident. When you finally hit a new PR, you'll feel a proud sense of accomplishment and as if you can take on anything.

Improving your self-image and sense of self-worth along the way can help you introduce this attitude to all aspects of your life. Not to mention, the mood-boosting hormones can leave you feeling on cloud nine.

2. More Energy 

When you get up and move around, even for just a few minutes a day, you can provide yourself with the energy you need to tackle the rest of your day. If you go outside to exercise, the increased sunlight exposure can also double down and give a kickstart to your energy.

3. Boost Your Brain Function

The chemicals that your brain releases when you exercise can also contribute to improved cognitive functions. You can sharpen your memory and concentration and feel less foggy-headed. Physical activity also stimulates the growth of new connections between brain cells, preventing declines in your mental functions.

Do Your Brain a Favor — Get Out & Exercise!

If you are looking to add exercise to your routine to help improve your mental health and overall wellness but find yourself getting discouraged, you're not alone. You don't have to struggle through intense activities that you dread. Instead, find a few activities that you enjoy and incorporate those into your day-to-day life. Find some variety so that you avoid boredom and adopt a regular exercise regimen. Maybe one day you will go for a bike ride, and the following two days, you will do some yoga and go on a brisk walk. Before you know it, you'll start reaping the many mental effects of regular exercise!

If you're looking to increase your happiness and well-being, be sure to join our mailing list for the latest tips, tricks and updates!

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