Exercise has long been a useful treatment for mental health that is widely ignored across society, and it shouldn’t be because it’s so effective.
One psychologist stated, “In my mind, the benefits of exercise are so incredible, I thought, ‘Why is this not part of mental health treatment?’ Why are we waiting for people to deteriorate before we give them effective treatments?”
Dr. Michael Otto, a professor of psychology at Boston University who studies the impact of exercise on depression and anxiety, agrees that it’s possible to work out your way to better mental health.
That said, “if you’re depressed and you start exercising and you feel better — that’s great,” Otto says. And if you’re already exercising regularly and are feeling some anxiety or depression creeping in, it’s worth keeping up with your routine — it might help keep your mood in check.
A 2015 review published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry concluded that while the scientific evidence wasn’t conclusive on the topic, there was enough out there to suggest that exercise could be an effective treatment for mild cases of depression.
In a paper published in JAMA Psychiatry in April, researchers at the University of Vermont tracked 1,237 adults between ages 50 and 85 over the course of 10 years. They found that people who did not exercise at all at the beginning of the decade were 70% more likely to develop depression by its end.
A 2016 meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found similar results.
Scientific Benefits Of Exercise On Mental Health
Mental health issues are ubiquitous, affecting a staggering one in four people each year. Depression, anxiety, and stress are among the most common mental health disorders.
Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution for mental health, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that exercise can be an effective tool for coping with these problems.
A systematic review of the research published in 2016 found that regular physical activity was “significantly associated with reduced depression and anxiety.”
Another recent study found that just 20 minutes of exercise per week can help to improve mood and reduce fatigue in people with mental health problems.
If you exercise regularly, you’re probably familiar with the physical benefits — better sleep, stronger muscles and bones, and less stress around your waistline. But there’s another side benefit to your workouts: improved mental health.
A growing body of research shows that physical activity can help boost mental health, decrease stress and improve mood. And it can be a powerful tool for treating depression and anxiety.
A study from Duke University showed that 30 minutes of aerobic activity three to five days a week was as effective as medication at treating depression. Another found that exercise is about as effective as psychotherapy for treating depression.
What’s going on? Experts aren’t exactly sure, but here are some theories:
Exercise releases feel-good chemicals in the brain, such as endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin.
- It increases your body temperature, which may have calming effects.
- It distracts you from worries and negative thoughts by focusing your mind on something else (sweating out a tough workout, for example).
- It improves self-esteem and provides a sense of control and accomplishment.
Ease mild symptoms of depression and anxiety. A 2018 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that a single session of aerobic exercise improved the moods of people with depression, anxiety, or both, compared to a control group who didn’t do any physical activity.
That study also found that 12 weeks of regular exercise (2-3 sessions per week) was associated with greater improvements in depressive symptoms than less frequent exercise.
Reduce stress and improve coping skills. In one 2009 study, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin looked at how moderate aerobic exercise affected people under psychological stress.
They found that people who had 30 minutes on a treadmill showed lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as lower rates of depression and anxiety, compared to those who did no exercise.
Improve sleep quality. Even a single bout of moderate aerobic exercise has been shown to help people sleep better, according to a review published in 2014 in the journal Sports Medicine.
What Is The Best Exercise For Mental Health?
Now that you know that there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that exercise is good for mental health, you might be wondering, ‘what are the best types of exercises for mental health?’
If you enjoy walking or running, you’re in luck. A study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry suggests that aerobic exercises — like running, walking, or cycling — can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. You might also want to consider giving Exerpy’s free trial a chance to see if it helps with your mental health.
Researchers from Yale University School of Medicine used data from more than 1.2 million Americans to identify the most effective forms of exercise for reducing symptoms. They found that around 3% of people who exercised regularly said they had no symptoms associated with depression or anxiety. The study also suggested that aerobic exercise was associated with improvements in cognitive function and self-esteem, and it helped with sleep quality and daytime functioning.
Exercise has a long-term effect on your body. It can change your brain structure and function by increasing the number of neurotransmitters, like dopamine, that affect your mood. Exercise also increases endorphins which are responsible for happiness.
For some people, exercise is the best way to improve their mental health as it is one of the most effective treatments for mild to moderate depression. Even more so than anti-depressants according to many studies! Another study found that regular physical activity improved symptoms in people who didn’t respond to antidepressants.
“It’s kind of a magic pill,” says Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, director of the Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “It makes people feel better, and it improves mood.”
Physical activity can help calm you down when you’re anxious or stressed out, Trivedi says. And he adds that taking a brisk walk outside can be particularly helpful because it adds exposure to daylight and fresh air to the mix.
The key to reaping the mental health benefits of exercise is getting moving regularly, Trivedi says. “The antidepressant effect comes in people who are exercising on a regular basis,” he explains.
Other Benefits Of Exercise
Aside from the obvious mental health benefits of exercise, there are also a host of other benefits related to it:
1. Exercise Helps You Sleep Better
A study published in the journal Sleep found that people who exercised regularly woke up less frequently and fell back asleep faster than people who didn’t exercise. The researchers looked at data from over 1,000 participants, comparing those who exercised with those who did not to determine how their sleeping habits were different.
The results showed that the two groups of people had very different experiences when it came to sleep. Those who exercised were more likely to get a good night’s rest and wake up feeling refreshed. People who didn’t exercise often felt tired and drowsy during the day and generally had a hard time falling asleep at night.
2. Exercise Boosts Your Mood
Exercise can help lift your mood. And it’s not just about feeling good after a workout — being active might also help you stay upbeat during the day.
Exercise can help you feel better when you’re down, but it also can help prevent you from getting down in the first place. It helps your body release endorphins and improves your sleep, which is a powerful combination against stress, anxiety, and depression. And exercise is a great distraction from your daily worries.
3. Exercise Protects Your Brain
New research suggests that exercise also protects your brain from shrinkage and enhances memory.
The study, published in the journal of neurology, looked at whether physical activity is related to brain structure and thinking skills. The study included more than 700 healthy adults age 65 and older who were free of dementia and stroke. None had participated in regular exercise for at least six months prior to the study.
Participants underwent MRI scans of the brain and a battery of tests assessing their thinking skills, including memory, planning, decision making, and organization. They also wore heart rate monitors during waking hours for seven days to assess how much they exercised each day.
Researchers found that people who engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity on most days had more tissue in certain areas of the brain — particularly the hippocampus — than those who were less active. The hippocampus is an area of the brain associated with memory formation.
People in the study who engaged in light exercise like walking did not have larger hippocampal volumes compared with those who were sedentary. However, those who exercised at a light intensity did perform better on certain thinking tests compared with people who did not exercise at all.
4. Exercise Fights Disease
The benefits of exercise extend beyond weight control and mental health. Exercise helps improve your overall health and fitness in many ways. It can help:
- Maintain your independence as you age
- Prevent falls and fractures
- Reduce the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke
- Reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes
- Reduce the risk of some types of cancer
- Reduce high blood pressure
- Reduce unhealthy cholesterol levels
5. Exercise Is Great For Self-Esteem
It’s no secret that regular exercise is good for your mental and physical health. But can it boost self-esteem?
Researchers have studied the effects of exercise on self-esteem since the 1960s, and there’s a consensus that, yes, exercise has a significant impact on self-esteem. That doesn’t mean it’s an instant cure for low self-esteem. In fact, it may take weeks or months of regular exercise before you feel more confident in yourself.
Many people who have problems with low self-esteem aren’t satisfied with their appearance. Exercise can help you improve your body image, which often leads to greater self-acceptance. This can boost both mental and physical well-being.
Exercise can boost your self-esteem by boosting your confidence levels. By accomplishing difficult physical feats, you gain confidence and pride in your abilities. This can lead to a better overall feeling about yourself, says the American Psychological Association (APA).
How Do I Get Started With An Exercise Routine?
Getting started with an exercise routine to boost your mental health couldn’t be easier. The team at Exerpy develops customized programs for clients based on their current level of physical fitness and mental health situations. They are completely confidential and have a strong desire to see everyone’s mental health positively impacted.
Visit their website today for more information on how to get started.