Unpredictable moods are sometimes mysterious, but the mental health benefits of exercise can result in your mood being more stable and more positive if you exercise regularly. As mental health awareness becomes more and more prevalent, natural ways to improve our mental health has become a hot topic. This is because prescription mood elevators or anti-anxiety medication can be addictive, habit-forming, and comes with side effects.
Natural mood elevators, however, such as eating stress relieving foods and exercising to release endorphins, are safer and better ways to improve your mental health.
So, what exactly are the mental health benefits of exercise? There has been plenty of research that has found exercise to be massively beneficial to mental health. This includes the ability of regular exercise to help combat a number of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and PTSD.
In this article, we’ll discuss the top mental health benefits of exercise.
What Type of Physical Activity Provides the Mental Health Benefits of Exercise?
Physical activity, or exercise, is anything that gets you up, being active, and gets your body moving. All exercise is good exercise, and all physical activity helps you reap the mental health benefits of exercise.
However, some people find that they feel especially calmer or happier when they exercise outdoors or in nature, such as a scenic hike. If it’s hot out, just make sure you follow these tips to exercise safely in the heat.
Generally, exercise should be at least 30 minutes of activity, but an hour is even better. Frequency wise, you should aim to exercise at least 4 – 5 times per week. Your regular exercise could be something like an evening walk, a morning run, hiking, a spin class or dance class, a combo of weightlifting and cardio at the gym, or whatever you’re in the mood for that day. Whether you want to walk or dance, there are plenty of different ways for you to get daily exercise.
For adults, it is recommended that you get between 75 and 150 minutes of exercise per week in order to stay healthy. More minutes of weekly exercise is even better. As long as it gets you moving, increases your heart rate and leaves you feeling warmer by the end of it, it counts as physical activity.
The Scope of Mental Health
We all struggle with our mental health from time-to-time, even if we don’t have a diagnosed mental health condition such as clinical depression or an anxiety disorder. Watching out for your mental health is a universal goal for everyone.
Mental health includes emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Your current state of mental health will impact your cognition, emotions, and behavior. Good mental health also impacts your ability to cope with stressful situations, relationship problems, productivity, decision-making, and your ability to enjoy activities.
Mental health (or mental wellness) includes:
- Being able to self-regulate our emotions
- The sense of feeling good about ourselves
- Being able to function well as an individual or in relationships
- The ability to deal with the challenges life throws at us (emotional resilience)
- Feeling connected to our communities and surroundings
- Having the ability to enjoy life without feeling anxious all the time
- Having activities and hobbies we enjoy, rather than alienating ourselves due to depression
- Having a sense of purpose and value in life
When one or more of these things is impacted, this has an effect on our overall mental health, and we need to find ways to keep it in good condition – just like we do with the rest of our body.
How Exercise Improves Depression
There have been studies that show that exercise is able to help combat mild forms of depression as much as medication does, although it is important to continue to take medication to help balance your serotonin levels if your doctor recommends it. Exercising reduces the frequency of depressive episodes.
When it comes to the mental health benefits of exercise, helping with depression is one of the top benefits. But why is exercise so effective for depression? For starters, exercise releases endorphins which are powerful natural brain chemicals that help you feel good. They’re known as ‘happy hormones’, boosting your energy as well as your mood.
Furthermore, exercise encourages neural growth in the brain and reduces inflammation for clearer thinking. The new activity patterns also promote a sense of calm and well-being within your mind.
How Exercise Improves Anxiety
Exercise and anxiety are linked by the release of endorphins, those happy hormones that make you feel calmer and help take the heart-pounding fear away. Exercise helps to relieve stress as well as boosts your physical and mental energy to help you keep going.
You can also add a little mindfulness, the feeling of your feet hitting the ground as you run, the way the wind feels on your skin, the sound of your breathing – all of these can help to ground you and make you feel more in touch with the world around you.
How Exercise Helps Those With ADHD
ADHD doesn’t always mean you have a lot of physical energy to spare, but exercise can help to focus the mind and channel your mental energy in a more positive manner. Physical activity can help to improve concentration, memory retention, motivation, and mood.
This is because it interacts with the serotonin and dopamine receptors in the brain – each of which impacts ADHD as well as your focus levels. When you are feeling overwhelmed, and you have 12 thoughts at once, this can be a good way to streamline them.
How Exercise Can Help Those With PTSD and Trauma
For PTSD and trauma, exercise works well to refocus your thoughts and energy as a way of distracting your mind from the traumatic event it is reliving or the fear response that your body is going through.
Exercise can actually help the nervous system to become unstuck when hit with an immobilization response. Any form of exercise is a great way to help you overcome this, giving you the ability to focus on your muscles and movements instead of your fear response.
Other Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
There is even more to exercise than what we have stated above, and some of the other positive mental health benefits of exercise include:
- Sharper memory and ability to focus
- Better productivity and cognitive function
- Clearer thought processes
- Improved self-esteem
- Body positivity
- Greater sense of accomplishment
- Improved sleep
- More energy
- Improved resilience
The Bottom Line
Exercise is a fantastic way to combat mental health, both in terms of a physical sense as well as a chemical one. The endorphins that are released by the brain when we exercise can help to combat depression and anxiety, while the dopamine and serotonin aid in refocusing thought processes for those with ADHD.
Exercise isn’t always going to be the cure for mental health conditions, but it can certainly be a fantastic way to try and combat some of the symptoms, and helps improve your overall mood.
The best thing about exercise is that it helps improve both your physical health and mental health.
- Exercise for Mental Health (Ashish Sharma, M.D., Vishal Madaan, M.D. & Frederick D. Petty, M.D., Ph.D.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/
- Physical activity guidelines for adults aged 19 to 64 (NHS) https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/exercise-guidelines/physical-activity-guidelines-for-adults-aged-19-to-64/#:~:text=Adults%20should%20aim%20to%3A,vigorous%20intensity%20activity%20a%20week
- What Is Mental Health? (MentalHealth.gov) https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/what-is-mental-health
- The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed (Lynette L. Craft, Ph.D. & Frank M. Perna, Ed.D., Ph.D.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC474733/
- How Exercise Affects Your Brain (Scientific American) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-exercise-affects-your-brain/
- Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety (Elizabeth Anderson & Geetha Shivakumar) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632802/
- Physical exercise in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – evidence and implications for the treatment of borderline personality disorder (Aylin Mehren, Markus Reichert, David Coghill, Helge H. O. Müller, Niclas Braun & Alexandra Philipsen) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6945516/
- The Effects of Exercise on Dopamine Neurotransmission in Parkinson’s Disease: Targeting Neuroplasticity to Modulate Basal Ganglia Circuitry (G.M. Petzinger, D.P. Holschneider, B.E. Fisher, S. McEwen, N. Kintz, M. Halliday, W. Toy, J.W. Walsh, J. Beeler & M.W. Jakowec) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4621077/
- Exercise Intervention in PTSD: A Narrative Review and Rationale for Implementation (Nicole J. Hegberg, Jasmeet P. Hayes & Scott M. Hayes) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6437073/