The Important Mental Health Benefits of Exercise & Fitness

If you’ve ever worked out after a stressful day — chances are you were in a better mood afterward. From stress relief to an almost immediate boost in self-esteem, exercise is just as great for your mind as it is for your body. Find out the best approaches to exercising for your mental health by continuing to read on below.

The relationship between exercise and mental health

Everyone knows that exercise is good for their physical health, but how often do you think about working out for your mental and emotional health? Studies have shown regular exercise has a powerful effect on both short-term and long-term mental health. Even modest amounts of physical activity (especially outside in nature) have been proven to treat long-term depression, ADHD, anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, and other common mental health challenges. (1)

No matter your fitness level or age, you can use regular exercise as a natural, safe, and effective way to improve and maintain your mental health.

four people in a huddle giving high fives

People who exercise regularly and say they enjoy it often don’t just do it to stay in shape. It’s because it gives them a sense of well-being.

Did you know?
Exercise can offer a nearly-instant mood boost. Just 5 minutes of aerobic exercise stimulates anti-anxiety effects in the brain. (2)

A list of the mental health benefits of exercise

Interested in knowing the positive effects of exercise on mental health? Exercising comes with a range of mental health benefits: (3)

  • Quality sleep
  • Stress relief
  • Higher energy levels
  • Less anxiety
  • Minimized feelings of fatigue
  • Improved alertness and concentration
  • Increased interest in sex
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Boost in overall mood
  • A general sense of well-being

Treating common mental health conditions with exercise

Exercise for depression

Exercise and mental health research have shown that physical training can be used to treat mild to moderate depression just as effectively as antidepressant medication. The best part about it? Exercise is just as powerful without the unpleasant side-effects that often accompany meds.

And working out doesn’t just relieve depressive symptoms. Studies have shown that developing a regular exercise routine can even prevent you from relapsing into a slump. Being physically active is an easy and cost-effective way to build up your mental stamina and emotional fortitude. (4) To date, aerobic and cardio exercises have been studied to be the most effective at treating depression.

two men cycling in the gym

Aerobic exercises, such as jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, dancing, and gardening have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. (5)

Did you know?
Only about half of U.S. adolescents are physically active five or more days of the week, according to researchers at the National Institute of Health (NIH). (6)

Exercise for stress

When you’re stressed, ever noticed how your body tenses up? Stress is often accompanied by painful headaches, sore shoulders, a bad back, or neck pain. Exercising is an excellent way to release endorphins in the brain and relax your muscles. As your body releases tension, so will your mind. Exercises that also require you to focus on your breathing such as yoga, swimming, or gentle strength training can be especially beneficial. (7)

Be proactive and make a point of staying committed to working out even when you don’t feel stressed out. Findings from a 2014 study testing stress levels in healthy adult participants suggest that regular exercise is a great way to build up emotional resilience in response to acute stress. (8)

Exercise for anxiety

Working out is a great way to alleviate anxiety naturally. The release of endorphins from exercise gives you an energy boost and improves your feeling of overall well-being. When you’re working out to combat anxiety, try and focus on being in the moment instead of just zoning out. Any exercise can help diminish anxiety, but aerobic exercises that get your heart rate up and also require mindfulness have been studied to be the most beneficial. Think of hot yoga or swimming. (9)

Exercise for PTSD & trauma

There is a lot of mounting evidence that has shown tuning into how your body feels as you exercise is particularly beneficial for people suffering from PTSD or trauma. Focus on the sensations felt throughout your body as you workout. Outdoor activities such as hiking, rock climbing, skiing, sailing, mountain biking, have also been shown to be particularly good at alleviating PTSD symptoms. (10)(11)

Did you know?
Research has found that exercising outside in nature reduces ADHD and PTSD symptoms more effectively than when just working out indoors. (12)(13)

Exercise for ADHD

Exercise is one of the best natural ways to reduce the symptoms of ADHD. Exercise triggers your brain’s serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine levels, which helps with focus and concentration. Studies have shown aerobic exercise for at least 30 to 40 minutes a day, 4-5 days a week to be an effective treatment regimen. (14)(15)

Researchers have also found that more complex exercises can be particularly beneficial for children and adults with ADHD. Think of sports such as karate, rock climbing, dance, gymnastics, taekwondo, judo, yoga, crossfit, and jiu-jitsu that focus on self-control. When exercising for ADHD, you want to find an activity that brings the mind and body together. (16)

woman and man playing basketball outdoors

Joining a recreational league for soccer or basketball may be just the perfect thing to get you committed to being up and moving a couple of times a week.

Did you know?
Being part of a team can have a profound impact on a young adult’s self-esteem. (17)

Is there an ideal workout ‘frequency’ for mental health?

You don’t need to be in the gym for hours a day or be a marathon runner to harness all the mental health benefits of routine exercise.

Everyone is different, but according to a cross-sectional study, you should aim to work out at least 30 to 45 minutes, 3-5 times per week. And remember — more is not always necessarily better. Research has shown that when you overdo it at the gym, exercise can end up becoming a mental stressor. (18) And depending on your mental health goals, a ten-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout for relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Did you know?
Individuals doing moderate to high-intensity exercise for at least 5 days a week are 25 percent less likely to develop an anxiety or depression disorder over the next five years. (19)

How hard should you push during a workout for the best results?

Studies have shown that moderate levels of exercise are best for most people, but everyone is different depending on their genetics, diet, training regimen, and other factors.

Moderate exercise means: (20)( 21)

  • You will breathe a little heavier than usual, but are not out of breath and can keep up a conversation. You can speak but it would be challenging to sing.
  • Your body should be building up body heat, but not overheating to the point you want to roll around on the ground.

Did you know?
As exercising becomes more habitual, you can slowly add extra time or try different times of more complicated activities and movements.

The relationship between exercise and mental health

How can moving your muscles have such a significant impact on your mental health? It’s unclear exactly how exercise can improve mental health. Experts on the topic agree that there are likely multiple mechanisms at multiple levels at play.

Some researchers suspect that exercising alleviates chronic depression by releasing serotonin, while another theory suggests exercise helps normalize sleep, which is known to have benefits for the brain. (22)

There are physiological explanations too. Exercise may boost your outlook by helping you find meaning in activity and providing a sense of accomplishment in your community. (23)

two people running outside with a dog

Your emotional well being can be dramatically improved by adopting an active lifestyle.

If exercise makes you feel good, why is it so hard to do it?

Unfortunately, science has yet to answer this question — but we do know that when we exercise we undoubtedly experience an enormous sense of well-being.

Going too hard when you first start a new exercise program may be one of the reasons people disdain physical activity.

Did you know?
When you exercise above your respiratory threshold — above the point where it’s hard to talk — the exercise mood boost is postponed by about 30 minutes.

Tips for building a successful workout regimen

Just like any treatment or medication, you have to exercise consistently to reap the whole spectrum of mental health benefits. If you have a problem with staying committed to a workout routine, try these tips: (24)

  • Find a workout partner. An exercise partner can help you stay on track and also help pass the time while you break a sweat. If you are suffering from depression, the companionship can be just as important as the exercise.
  • Switch it up. Keep it exciting by changing up your activity every day or week.
  • Be an early bird. If you are able, exercise first thing in the morning to get the most benefit from all the other mood-boosting chemicals. Also, you get in your exercise before the stress of the day overwhelms you to push it off to the next day.
  • Start small. If it’s been a while since you last worked out, take it slow and don’t have unreasonable expectations. It is better to set goals you can reach and build up.
  • Eat clean. Diet and exercise both have a huge impact on your mental health. The type of nutrients you are consuming will impact how well your mind and body are able to function. If there are gaps in your diet, consider supplementing.

How to make exercise feel rewarding and fun

Like we said earlier, you don’t need to spend hours at the gym or pushing through long runs to reap the mental health benefits of physical activity. In fact, you don’t even need to exercise for 30 minutes in a row. Two 15-minutes or even three 10-minute sessions throughout the day work just as well. (18)

Try and think about fitness as more of a lifestyle rather than just a task you need to check off your to-do list every day. Whenever it feels a bit overwhelming to go to the gym, focus on finding movement and mindfulness in your daily routine.

Need some ideas for sneaking physical activity into your weekly routine? You can clean out the bathroom cabinets, wash the car at home instead of taking it to the carwash, play tag with your kids, walk rather than drive to an appointment, take the stairs over the elevator at work, stretch while watching television or make a point of parking at the back of the lot.

The bottom line

Your mental and emotional health can be improved through exercise, but many people tend to skip exercising for their mental health at the very time when it has the greatest payoff.

Failing to move and exercise when you feel at your worst mentally is like not drinking water when you have dry mouth.

Remember that when you’re ‘too busy’ to take the time to exercise that’s often the time when it’s going to pay off the most!

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