The Mental Health Benefits of Physical Exercise

Physical exercise can play an important role in mental well-being and can even relieve symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. While the physical health benefits of exercise are frequently discussed, the link between exercise and mental health is often overlooked. Studies suggest that physical exercise may help ward off mental health problems before they start. Research also shows exercise can improve the symptoms of many existing mental illnesses.

mental health benefits of exercise
Verywell / Brianna GIlmartin

How Mental Health Benefits From Physical Exercise

Mental health professionals sometimes prescribe exercise as part of the treatment for specific mental illnesses. Some of the potential mental health effects of exercise include:

Anxiety and Stress

Exercise decreases sensitivity to the body's reaction to anxiety. Additionally, a regular exercise program can help ease symptoms of other common co-occurring conditions, such as ​irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Exercise helps promote the growth of new neurons in key areas of the brain, including the hippocampus. Some research suggests that this may play a role in relieving symptoms of some psychiatric conditions including depression and anxiety. Animal studies have found that increased neurogenesis may play a role in calming the brain during times of stress.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Exercise may improve motor skills and executive function for children with ADHD. This seems to apply to both moderate and vigorous exercise, and exercising for a longer period of time may lead to better results. Cardio seems to be particularly beneficial for children and adults with ADHD.

Depression

Light, moderate, and vigorous exercise have been shown to reduce the severity of depression. In fact, exercise may be as effective as other treatments for depression. It's possible that regular workouts reduce inflammation, which has a positive effect on people with this condition.

Panic Disorder

For people with panic disorder, exercise can be a proactive way to release pent-up tension and reduce feelings of fear and worry. Exercise may also decrease the intensity and frequency of panic attacks in some cases.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Physical activity may be beneficial for people with PTSD, especially those who have previously struggled with treatment and those with subthreshold PTSD. Exercise may also help PTSD symptoms like depression, anxiety, sleep issues, and cardiovascular problems.

How Exercise Promotes Positive Well-Being

Exercise can also be used to enhance well-being in people who already feel mentally healthy. Increased physical activity has been found to enhance mood, improve energy levels, and promote quality sleep.

There are several reasons why physical activity can be good for psychological well-being:

  • Exercise decreases stress hormones. Exercise decreases stress hormones like cortisol. It also increases endorphins—your body's "feel-good" chemicals—giving your mood a natural boost.
  • Physical activity distracts you from negative thoughts and emotions. Physical activity can take your mind off of your problems and either redirect it to the activity at hand or get you into a zen-like state.
  • Exercise promotes confidence. Exercise can help you lose weight, tone your body, and maintain a healthy glow and a smile. You may feel a subtle but significant boost in your mood as your clothes look more flattering and you project an aura of increased strength.
  • Exercise can be a good source of social support. The benefits of social support are well-documented, and many physical activities can be social activities as well. So whether you join an exercise class or you play softball in a league, exercising with others can give you a double dose of stress relief.
  • Better physical health may mean better mental health. While stress can cause illness, illness can also cause stress. Improving your overall health and longevity with exercise can save you a great deal of stress in the short run (by strengthening your immunity to colds, the flu, and other minor illnesses) and the long run (by helping you stay healthier longer, and enjoy life more because of it).
  • Exercise provides a buffer against stress. Physical activity may be linked to lower physiological reactivity toward stress. Simply put, those who get more exercise may become less affected by the stress they face. So, in addition to all the other benefits, exercise may supply some immunity toward future stress as well as a way to cope with current stress.

Types of Physical Exercise

Fortunately, there are many types of exercise that can improve mental health. From weight lifting to running, it's important to find exercises that you enjoy doing. Here are some types of exercise that can be good for mental health.

Yoga

Yoga can range from gentle to challenging. The most common form of yoga (hatha yoga) involves physical poses (known as asanas), controlled breathing, and periods of meditation.

Yoga is a low-risk method for healing the body and mind. Often the positive effects can be felt after just one class.

A 2018 study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found that yoga can help:

  • Decrease physiological arousal
  • Lower heart rate
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve respiration
  • Reduce the stress response
  • Reduce depression and anxiety
  • Increase energy and feelings of well-being

Tai Chi

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that combines meditation and rhythmic breathing in a slow series of graceful body movements and poses (also called forms). Tai Chi has been shown to:

  • Reduce stress
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Improve depressed mood
  • Increase self-esteem

Aerobic Exercise

There is growing research evidence that regular aerobic exercise (such as running, cycling or swimming) is associated with better psychological health.

Although studies have focused on depression, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), there's also some evidence to suggest a positive effect of exercise on social phobia.

Both single sessions and long-term programs of aerobic exercise have been shown to provide a positive benefit for psychological health.

Although as little as five to 10 minutes of aerobic exercise can help to improve your mood and reduce your anxiety, regular programs, lasting from 10 to 15 weeks, seem to improve one's overall mental state.

Before You Begin

If you are just starting out with an exercise program, it's important to consult with your doctor to determine the best form of exercise and intensity level for your physical condition.

Your medical history, current medications, and diagnosed conditions can all play a role in your ability to exercise.

If you suspect you have a mental illness or you're being treated by a mental health professional, ask about how you can incorporate physical activity into your treatment.

A qualified mental health professional can make suggestions about the best strategies for treating your specific condition.

How to Start a Physical Exercise Plan

Once you have obtained your doctor’s approval and recommendations, you will want to decide on an exercise program that's right for you.

Do you want to take a class? Could it be helpful to hire a trainer at the gym? Do you prefer to go for a walk on your own time while listening to your favorite music? The key to sticking with a program is to find something that you enjoy doing.

When starting a new exercise plan, you may initially feel very motivated. This motivation to exercise can be extremely beneficial in helping you get started on your new exercise plan.

A 2017 study published in Maturitas found that between two and six hours of exercise each week is best for optimal mental health.

Here are a few tips to start and maintain your exercise plan:

  • Don’t overdo it. Be careful not to push yourself to extremes in the beginning, as this can lead to physical injury. Remember that exercise can be fun and can help improve your mood and anxiety, but it should not be causing physical issues. Take it slow in the beginning and gradually increase your workouts over time.
  • Make a commitment to your exercise plan. From stressed-out executives to frazzled stay-at-home parents, everyone is busy. Putting time aside to exercise means that you have made your health and well-being a top priority. It can take time before you notice improvements in your symptoms. For the best results, stay patient and consistent with your exercise program.
  • Know that your motivation may change at different stages of your exercise plan. It is not uncommon for your initial enthusiasm to fade over time. It can help to change your routine a little or find new exercise options altogether. For example, if you're getting bored with the treadmill at the local gym, try walking locally or joining a hiking group. These alternative options can also have the added benefit of helping you socialize while you exercise.
  • Keep experimenting. Experiment with different strategies to find what works best for you. If you struggle to stick with exercise first thing in the morning, try exercising in the afternoon. Or, if you discover that you dread hitting the gym, try exercising outside. Keep experimenting until you find something that you are likely to stick to.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How does exercise help anxiety?

Physical exercise may lessen feelings of anxiety and improve your resiliency against stress. Exercise is associated with less reactivity in the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, both of which are associated with the fight-or-flight reaction. Regular physical activity may also have positive effects on the brain, like increased neurogenesis and improved neurotransmitter levels.

What are the mental health benefits of aerobic exercise?

Aerobic (or cardio) exercise involves maintaining an increased heart rate and breathing rate for an extended period of time. This type of workout can offer immediate benefits for your mood, mental clarity, and ability to withstand stress.

When will I start to see the mental health benefits of physical exercise?

You may feel an improved mood and euphoric feeling immediately after you exercise, especially if you’re engaging in moderate activity. You may also experience improved cognitive abilities, like memory, problem-solving skills, and decision-making ability, after just one session. Over time, these positive effects should continue to build, and you may notice improvements as soon as six weeks after starting regular exercise.

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