It’s long been known that exercise can do wonders for your physical health, strengthening your heart and protecting you from a litany of lifestyle diseases. It can also transform your body, making you leaner, stronger, and more powerful. As impressive as all that is, perhaps the greatest benefit of exercise is that it can also improve your mental health. For decades, researchers have been digging into the effects of exercise on mental health, and the results are impressive. If you want to feel better, it might be time to lace up your running shoes. Here’s what you need to know about exercise for mental health.
This Is Your Brain on Exercise
Exactly how can a round of jumping jacks brighten your day? In other words, how does exercise improve mental health? The answer is complex and multifaceted, just like the human brain itself. Here is how exercise and mental health are connected.
For starters, exercise changes the neurochemical balance inside your brain. It reduces adrenaline and cortisol, hormones strongly correlated to stress, while also stimulating the production of endorphins.
Endorphins are powerful painkillers and are also commonly considered “feel good” chemicals for their ability to promote feelings of happiness and contentment. In fact, endorphins may be the neurochemical behind the much sought-after runner’s high.
You may notice that even moderate forms of exercise, like walking, force you to breathe a little heavier. This extra dose of oxygen doesn’t just fuel your muscles. It also fuels your brain. The increased oxygen and blood flow in your brain helps nourish your most important organ and spurs the growth of blood vessels, a process known as “brain angiogenesis.”
More oxygen and blood to the brain improve the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain dedicated to reasoning and decision making.
Yes, you read that right. Jumping on a treadmill or taking a bike ride could help your brain work better. Exercise has been shown to increase the production of special proteins in the brain called neurotrophins. These proteins are key to the development of neurons, or brain cells. In this way, exercise can lead to the development of new neurons that are able to create new connections and pathways in the brain. This may be why research has found that exercise can improve mental sharpness and memory.
Good sleep is a huge factor in a healthy brain. While you sleep, your body is still hard at work repairing your muscles and boosting your immune system. A chronic lack of sleep can lead to all sorts of problems, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, depression, and obesity. Exercise can help regulate your sleep and help you get better sleep.
Breaks Negative Thought Patterns
When you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed, it can be easy to get trapped in your negative thoughts. You may replay that argument with a friend over and over in your brain or even fall into catastrophic thinking. Exercise will naturally force you to switch your focus to what you’re doing. It’s hard to listen to your self-doubts when you’re in the middle of a set of burpees. Even repetitive exercises, like running, can help you shift to the present, promoting natural mindfulness as you focus on your muscles, your breath, and the sound of your strides.
Exercise can also be a great way to boost your self-confidence. Consistent trips to the gym will lead to steady improvements in strength and stamina. You’ll begin to build comfort and then mastery of the movements. You’ll also notice changes in your body as your clothes fit better and you see more definition in your figure. In this way, the improvements in your outward body can also reflect the improvements of your inner mind.
What Are the Psychological Benefits of Exercise?
Now you know a little more about what’s happening inside your body when you hit the squat rack or take a Zumba class, but what exactly can exercise do for mental health?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), one in three Americans is living with extreme stress. Even if you aren’t in that category, the APA also found that almost half of the Americans surveyed report that their stress has increased over the past five years. Exercise has long been known to help alleviate stress. The release of endorphins can help you feel better about life, while the act of exercising itself can help you break out of stressful thoughts.
Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety is the most common form of mental illness in the United States, affecting over 18% of the population each year. Additionally, over 16 million American adults suffer from major depressive disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Both anxiety and depression can dramatically lower a person’s quality of life. A particularly fascinating 2019 Harvard study discovered that individuals who exercise a few hours per week were less likely to become depressed. This was even true for individuals with a genetic predisposition toward depression.
Trauma and PTSD
Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can seriously hinder an individual’s ability to enjoy life, connect with others, and develop healthy relationships. Oftentimes, individuals also struggle with intrusive thoughts, which can lead to insomnia and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Exercise can help break this cycle, helping those with trauma and PTSD refocus on the present. As this article noted, exercise can also improve sleep, which may also help ease the symptoms of PTSD.
How to Start an Exercise Plan
The positive effects of exercise on mental health are clear, but how can you attain this brain-boosting mojo for yourself? Mental health conditions like PTSD, anxiety, and depression zap energy and motivation. That means starting an exercise routine will be difficult… but not impossible. Here are some tips to start a fitness plan and reap all the benefits of exercise on mental health.
Tip 1: Start Small
Often, the hardest step is the very first one. Keep your goals small and achievable. Maybe running a mile feels too big right now. That’s completely fine. How about committing to walk for 10 minutes a day three days a week? The benefits of exercise on mental health often build up over time. As you begin to feel better and more energetic, you can increase the scope of your fitness goals.
Tip 2: Create a Fitness Schedule
If you decide that you want to “start exercising,” it’ll be easy to keep pushing it off until the next day or the next week, or the next month. Hold yourself accountable by scheduling your exercise. Book 10 or 20 minutes in your calendar and reserve that time for exercise.
Tip 3: Recruit a Friend
In times when you may be struggling with motivation, you may need a little help. Ask a friend or family member to be your workout buddy. Schedule a time and a place to meet for a walk or run or go on a gym date together. Knowing that your friend is expecting you can help you stay committed to exercising.
Tip 4: Find a Fitness Activity You Enjoy
If you hate running, then you’ll never stick with a running routine. Fitness comes in all different forms. Have you ever tried cycling? What about swimming or weightlifting? Maybe it’s time to take a yoga class or try a dance class. Speaking of which…
Tip 5: Join a Group Fitness Class
The energy and good vibes of a group fitness class will help lift your spirits. Plus, you won’t have to figure out what type of workout to do. Just follow along with the instructor and the rest will happen on its own. Gyms like EōS Fitness offer a wide range of fitness classes. They are a great opportunity to try different exercise modalities and to discover the fitness that fits you.
Exercise for Mental Health
Even a little exercise each week can help you feel better. Yes, it may be difficult to get started if you’re feeling down but push through your doubts and begin to move. Even after a few steps, all the little mechanisms that boost your brain health will start to happen. More blood and oxygen will hit your brain and the endorphins will gradually percolate. Best of all, the mental health benefits of exercise build over time, so the more you exercise, the better you’ll feel.
If you are struggling with your mental health and need help, contact the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) helpline at (800) 950-NAMI (6264).