The Important Mental Health Benefits of Exercise and Fitness


Updated on May 7, 2020

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 connection between mental health and exercise

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 that 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 shown to be beneficial for 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.

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. Exercise can also boost your outlook by helping you find meaning in activities and providing a sense of accomplishment in your community. (2)

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 five minutes of aerobic exercise stimulates anti-anxiety effects in the brain. (3)

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:

Addressing common mental health conditions with exercise

The lack of exercise can lead to some serious mental health conditions. Adding physical activity to a daily routine can help prevent or manage common mental health conditions.

Exercise for depression

Exercise and mental health research have shown that physical training can help improve symptoms of 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. (5)(6)

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. To date, aerobic and cardio exercises have been studied to be the most effective at treating depression. (7)(8)

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). (10)

Exercise for stress

When you’re stressed, ever notice how your body tenses up? Stress is often accompanied by painful headaches, sore shoulders, 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. (11)

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. (12)

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 symptoms of 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. (13)

Exercise for PTSD & trauma

There is a lot of mounting evidence that has shown tuning in to 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. (14)(15)

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 20 minutes a day, four to five days a week to be an effective treatment regimen. (16)(17)(18)(19)

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. (20)

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. (21)

The ideal workout 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 45 minutes, three to five 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. 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. (22)(23)

Did you know?
Individuals doing moderate to high-intensity exercise for at least five days a week are 25% less likely to develop an anxiety or depression disorder over the next five years. (24)

Moderate exercise

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. (25) During moderate exercise, 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. (26)(27)

two people running outside with a dog

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

Did you know?
When you exercise really hard— to the point where it’s hard to talk — your exercise mood boost is usually postponed by about 30 minutes. (28)

Mental health-boosting workout tips

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:

  • 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
  • Rotate workouts – keep it exciting by changing up your activity every day or week
  • Exercise in the morning – if you are able, exercise first thing in the morning to get the most benefit from all the other mood-boosting chemicals
  • Start small & simple – if it’s been a while since you last worked out, take it slow and don’t have unreasonable expectations
  • 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
  • Consider supplements – if there are gaps in your diet, ask your healthcare practitioner about supplementation (29)

Finding time for exercise

Worried your schedule is too packed to make it to the gym? 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. (30)

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.

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. And remember that when you’re feeling way ‘too busy’ to take the time to break a sweat, that’s usually when it’s going to pay off the most!

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