Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
Moving our bodies in various ways is a natural and effective way to ease anxiety and tension and boost mood through the natural release of feel-good chemicals. Getting exercise outdoors has even more benefits, as does the inclusion of a social factor.
You don't need special equipment, a gym-fit body, or a personal trainer to get started exercising. Many of the suggestions you'll read in this article are about low-cost, low-commitment ways to get moving, no matter where you live. Plus, we look at how to get motivated if you are already dealing with a mental health condition.
How does exercise help you mentally?
Mainstream focus around exercise has classically been around improving a person's physical health and physique, tighter waistlines, more vigour, and looking younger but living longer.
Those are all enticing reasons to start exercising. What keeps a person going after they have reached their physical goals? What benefits does exercise have for someone much older and not looking for a beach body? Why should people who are already happy with their body exercise?
It's because people who exercise regularly tend to stick with it. After all, it gives them an enormous sense of well-being. They may find they sleep better, feel more positive, and keep other health conditions at bay because of it. Exercise is also a powerful medicine that benefits many mental health challenges. Even modest amounts of physical activity can make a real difference in your mood, mental clarity, and ability to overcome life pressures and challenges.
Exercise promotes positive changes in our brains that affect neural growth, inflammation, activity patterns and homeostasis, and the release of powerful chemicals that energize us and make us feel good. (1) Exercise can also distract us from the pressures of work and home life, or a break from the cycle of negative thoughts that exacerbate some mental health conditions.
Finally, in addition to relieving mental health symptoms, research also shows that maintaining an exercise schedule can also help someone in addiction recovery.
How Does Exercise Benefit Common Mental Health Conditions?
Exercise is not a trade-off for prescribed medications or psychotherapy. However, it can help mitigate symptoms, enhance the way medication works, and even keep an anxious or cluttered mind on a healthy schedule. Here's how regular exercise affects common mental health conditions.
Studies show that exercise can help with mild to moderate depression symptoms, over time as effectively as antidepressant medication. (2) For instance, one such study concluded that 15 minutes of running or 60 minutes of walking a day, reduces the risk of major depression by 26 percent. (3)
The general finding is that exercise significantly reduces anxiety for those with normal or elevated levels of anxiety. (4) Exercise can introduce mindfulness to the anxious mind and burn off excess energy that results in sleeplessness. Notice the sensation in your feet while running or walking; focus on your breathing as a way of meditating while moving. Anxious thoughts may break through the calm, but the exercise can interrupt the constant flow of worry. With regular practice, you may find it easier to manage the onset of anxious thoughts.
Physical activity boosts the brain's dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels—all of which affect the focus and attention symptoms of the ADHD mind. In this way, exercise works very similarly to common ADHD medications. (5) Scheduling regular exercise is a cost-effective and enjoyable way to reduce the symptoms of ADHD that affect impulse control, (6) concentration, motivation, memory, and mood.
PTSD and Complex Trauma
Rigorous outdoor activities can reduce the symptoms of PTSD because they encourage a person to focus on their body rather than being immobilized by the stress responses that characterize PTSD or other traumas. (7) Choose exercises that engage the whole body. Perhaps in a location that excites you—skiing, wakeboarding, paddle boarding, weight training in a fun gym or outdoors, dancing and swimming are all excellent examples. It doesn't have to be a high-intensity sport, but one that brings your attention to the physical sensations all over your body.
Substance Use Disorder (SUD) or Addiction
In a study published this year, a total of 109 SUD patients were enrolled in a supervised walking/running exercise program for up to twelve months (depending on the individual’s goals) and their perceived positive benefits were observed. The study concluded that participants perceived positive benefits to their overall mental health and recovery, including “an increased sense of achievement, and a sense of belonging in the program.” (8)
Those who do not have a mental health diagnosis will still find that regular physical activity offers a welcome boost to mood and could serve as a preventative measure against a decline in mental health. (9) Regular exercise boosts the immune system, reduces the impact of stress, and stimulates new brain cell growth, which helps prevent age-related cognitive decline.
Addressing the common reasons why people don't exercise
Even when you know the benefits of exercise, starting from a place of inactivity is a challenge, and maintaining a regular exercise schedule is a commitment. On top of that, when you feel depressed, anxious, stressed or have another mental health problem, it can seem even trickier.
No matter how good we know we'll feel after a walk, or run, or game with friends, many obstacles keep us sedentary— especially on those cold days when staying cozy indoors is way more appealing. Your mental health condition may even try to control whether or not you exercise. Here's how to get past these barriers when you notice them.
Depression can feel like a weighted blanket, pulling a person more profoundly into a relaxed and passive state. Promise yourself a quick, 5-minute walk. Add in an element like music or a podcast you like and allow yourself to get lost in the sound. Chances are, once you get moving, you'll end up walking longer.
Exhaustion may seem like another good reason to put off exercise because putting out more energy will only further deplete what little we have, right? Physical activity is a powerful energizer, and studies show that regular exercise can dramatically reduce fatigue and increase your energy levels.
Too busy with the kids
Finding time to exercise around the children's schedules can be a challenge, but perhaps there are ways to include them, whether it's walk-running with a stroller, biking with them, or doing a little family yoga in the living room. Exercising with kids can get a bit chaotic sometimes, but remember, they need to build these healthy habits too, and you, as a parent, are influencer number one.
Chronic or acute pain
Chronic or acute pain is a more serious medical reason for not exercising. If the problem stems from a disability, excess weight, arthritis, or any injury that limits mobility, ask your doctor to recommend safe exercises. Solutions could include shorter exercise sessions or gentler, less-impactful activities altogether.
Examples of exercises
The great news is that we reap mental and physical health benefits from a moderate amount of exercise, several times per week. One study that measured 1.2 million people in the US between 2011-2015 found that exercising for 45 minutes three to five times a week was associated with the biggest benefits, including having fewer poor mental health days a month. (10)
Joining a gym and exercising is an option that tends to attract those who want a variety of classes and equipment and the freedom to work out even when the weather is poor. Besides joining a gym, here are some great ways to get exercise outdoors.
Walking and running
Walking and running require little equipment and could be one of the cheapest and user-friendly methods on this list for getting the mental health benefits of exercise—they don't call it a "runner's high" for nothing. Walking and running can be done indoors and outdoors, given that you have access to a treadmill or an indoor track. Enjoy either activity at the speed, duration and intensity that feels best for you.
Hiking and mountain biking
Two excellent ways to become immersed in nature are hiking and mountain biking. Besides just a regular walk, hiking tends to be best in rural, wooded areas with trails that challenge us with variable footings and elevations. Mountain biking takes some equipment but offers a technically engaging way to fly freely and swiftly through hills and woods. These activities align with forest bathing—the practice of using natural outdoor surroundings to improve one's mental health.
Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing
For a rigorous full-body exercise in winter, spend the day cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. It's a beautiful way to get out into the cold, sereneness of nature when resting under a blanket of snow. It is discouraged to venture out alone and without provisions, as these activities tend to take people out into secluded areas where food and cell reception could be scarce.
Not all exercise looks and sounds like hard work. Picking fruit at an orchard, dancing in your living room, restorative yoga, aqua aerobics, foraging for edible mushrooms, bowling, and gentle stretching in front of the television all count toward a healthier mind.
Begin to prioritize exercise for your mental well-being, and find ways to sneak in short spurts of movement into a packed schedule. Even if you don't have a history of exercising or enjoying exercise, there are ways to comfortably get active with easy, low-impact activities a few minutes each day, such as walking or dancing.
9. https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/sgr/pdf/sgrfull.pdf [pg. 136]