8 Science-backed Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
From building flexibility and lean muscle to losing weight, you can’t go wrong with breaking a sweat. But one thing you might not realize is that exercise is linked to a myriad of mental health benefits that can improve your quality of life.
Exercise is a way to practice self-care and improve your physical and mental health. Even with limited access to exercise equipment, you can still achieve a lot of the same benefits as you would with a full gym membership.
If you're new to exercise, don't think that you have to be throwing weights around the gym to gain mental clarity. Low- and medium-impact activities like yoga, TRX, pilates and Zumba can give you a new outlook. Consider joining a group fitness class like yoga, boot camp, or an adult sports team. Making new friends will improve your social life and give you something to look forward to each week.
Whether you're new to the gym or a seasoned veteran, here are eight science-backed mental health benefits of exercise. You can keep scrolling or jump to the infographic below.
1. Reduce Anxiety
Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety. Studies show that the effects of taking a mental "time out" with exercise creates a mental shift that can reduce symptoms of anxiety and stress.
When your body becomes stressed, it releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline raises your blood pressure and heart rate and boosts energy. Cortisol is a stress hormone created in the adrenal glands.
It's the chemical responsible for waking you up in the morning and engaging your fight or flight response. The body can release high levels of cortisol when stressed or from chemical imbalances like major depressive disorder (MDD). When overproduced, the hormone can leave you feeling on edge.
The same endorphins that help you through workouts can also calm your nerves. They’re released via the central nervous system and can create a sedative effect.
The next time that you are experiencing anxiety or a mental blow, try going for a walk.
To maintain a healthy lifestyle, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that adults ages 18 to 64 should perform moderate to intense aerobic activities for 75 to 150 minutes per week. This is the standard for achieving an adequate level of fitness.
2. Improve Your Mood
Have you ever had to drag yourself to the gym, only to hit your stride halfway through and by the end, feel completely on top of the world? The National Taiwan University reported that low-impact exercises like breathing-based walking can help boost your mood and cardiovascular health.
This happens because of endorphins, also known as the brain's "happy chemicals," which are stored in the pituitary gland. Endorphins are responsible for sending pain signals to the brain and minimizing feelings of discomfort. When activated during exercise, dopamine is released, giving you a natural body high (e.g. runner’s high). The euphoric feeling minimizes pain signals and can help you push through potential discomfort during exercise.
If you're feeling stressed, especially while working from home, try going for a run during your lunch break. The change of scenery is a great way to remove yourself from stressful situations and get the endorphins flowing. When you clock back in, you'll feel refreshed and ready to conquer the rest of the day.
3. Combat Depression
Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders, affecting more than 264 million people worldwide. Depression can be the result of many factors, including genetics and environmental influences. Different people can experience varying degrees of severity and respond differently to various treatments. The Journal of Sport and Health Science reported that people who exercise several hours a week are less likely to experience episodes of depression.
It can take some effort to get started, but as exercise becomes a part of your regular routine, you may notice an increase in your motivation levels.
A good rule of thumb to remember is not to go more than two days without performing some form of physical activity. Schedule the time on your calendar so even if you're having a bad day, there’s always something to look forward to.
4. Boost Your Confidence and Self-Esteem
Exercising can boost your confidence and self-esteem — from running and lifting weights to swimming in the pool and dancing in a Zumba class. You feel good when you're being physically active.
In fact, studies have found that the more regularly you exercise, the more you may begin to develop a positive self-image.
How awesome does it feel to hit a new personal record on your squat or deadlift? You feel a sense of achievement, knowing that you put in the work to reach the goal. One mental benefit of exercising is setting and achieving personal goals. This can motivate you to take on greater challenges in your personal and work life.
5. Improve Sleep
Sleep is an important factor in healthy aging and cardiometabolic health. As people grow older, they tend to sleep less. This makes them more susceptible to sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep-disturbance breathing.
Sleep studies have shown that nighttime disturbances occur more frequently in older women than men. This poor quality of sleep can lead to symptoms of depression, weight gain and chronic pain.
If you find yourself up in the middle of the night, getting outside or hitting the gym may be able to help reverse these effects. When you work out, you raise your heart rate and the body's internal temperature. If performed for prolonged periods or in multiple sets like in squats or kettlebell swings, you burn energy faster.
A recent fitness report found that high endurance aerobic workouts can help treat insomnia. Exercising isn't a substitute for seeing a licensed professional. However, the study suggests that it is a reputable non-pharmaceutical treatment.
When your body cools down, your body is drained and all you want to do is eat, shower and rest for the next nine hours. After exercising, the body needs time to refuel and recover. Paired with a healthy sleep routine, you'll be out like a light and counting reps in your sleep.
6. Reduce Chronic Diseases
Exercising can help slow the development of chronic age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
It's not clear what causes Alzheimer's. Doctors suspect that it's caused by an abnormal build-up of proteins in the brain. This causes a decrease in neurotransmitter activity. In time, areas of the brain begin to shrink.
Staying physically active can help prevent Alzheimer's by stimulating neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to restructure itself. For older adults, low-impact aerobics, light resistance training and elliptical machines can keep your neurotransmitters firing and the memory intact.
7. Grow Your Social Life
When first starting a new exercise routine, it can be intimidating; everything is new and you may not be sure where to start. Signing up for a group fitness class may change your tune.
Mental health experts have found that physical activity helps improve social skills in adolescents. Teens that take part in team sports show higher signs of empathy and leadership.
Even as adults, this can help new members feel welcome. Interacting and building friendships with classmates can increase your desire to take part. The camaraderie can help you get through your toughest days and most challenging workouts. So, if you're tired of exercising by yourself, make some new friends by joining a team.
8. Improve Your Sex Life
Having a regular exercise routine can improve your sex life. For men, physical activity is prescribed as a secondary treatment for sexual disorders. Exercises like heavy deadlifts trigger the body's testosterone response and the excess release can help decrease stress, anxiety and boost self-confidence.
Similar exercise studies have shown hormone benefits to women as well. For middle-aged women, high physical activity can reduce the effects of menopause as an alternative to hormone therapy (HT). Working out can help decrease the overproduction of estrogen and improve the libido.
Exercising can help you feel confident about yourself inside and out—reinvigorate your sex drive and helping you go the distance!
Exercising is not a trend or a short-term fix, it's a lifestyle. The mental benefits of exercise can help improve your overall quality of life.
If you think that you don't have time for 60 minutes for yourself because of the kids, bring them along! Listen to your favorite playlist while jogging with the stroller. Or practice pull-ups while your five-year-old climbs on the monkey bars.
To recover from your workouts, focus on getting adequate sleep and building healthy nutrition habits like using protein powders. You’ll be on your way to becoming the best version of yourself in no time.