How Exercise Can Improve Your Mental Health and Well-Being

by Marixie Ann Obsioma
Published on June 23, 2021 and last updated for accuracy on June 27, 2021

It is a known fact that exercise works as good for your brain as it does for your body (1). That said, exercise offers numerous benefits to your mental health and well-being, stimulating the chemicals in your brain to improve your mood, memory, and learning (2).

Exercise is not only about improving your physique or losing weight.  Interestingly, what really motivates most people to work out and stay active is the sense of well-being that they get (3).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), regular physical activity is one of the most essential things that you can do for your health. The good news is that all people – including those with common mental illnesses like depression, ADHD, and anxiety – can benefit from exercise (3)(4).

Most importantly, you’d be surprised to know how obtaining the mental health benefits of exercise can be also very easy to do (3)(5).

This article aims to uncover how staying fit can improve mental health and well-being, and provide you with some tips on how you can apply exercise in your daily life (4).

What is Physical Activity?

To be physically active means moving your body more and sitting less. Most of the time, a lot of people find physical activity helpful in maintaining their positive health – whether it be used solely or along with other treatments (6).

However, this does not mean that you need to run miles on a marathon or go to the gym every day to train; there are other interesting activities that you can do to stay active (6).

How Much Exercise Do You Need?

If you’re wondering how much exercise you need to boost your mental health, then you’d be happy to know that it doesn’t need to be strenuous or take a long time (7). As mentioned, you don’t need to devote hours training at the gyms or sweat tons to reap the mental and physical health benefits of exercise; even little activity is better than none (3).

Australian guidelines suggest that, for adults, at least 30 minutes of moderate to intensive physical activity five times a week will suffice. But, you can break it down into a good combination of shorter 10- to 15-minute sessions per day to make it easier (2)(3).

If 15 or 30 minutes of exercise seems impossible to incorporate in your busy schedule, you can start with 5- or 10-minute sessions and gradually increase it over time. The more you exercise, the more energy you’ll gain – so it’s important to stay committed, no matter how little you exert on most days. If your body also needs you to take breaks for 5 or 10 minutes in between, you can do so (3).

As exercise becomes a habit to you, you can add more time or try various activities, so you can receive more benefits of exercise (3).

What are the Mental Health Benefits of Exercise?

Research shows that people who exercise regularly possess better mental health and emotional well-being, as well as lower rates of mental illness (7). Thus, exercising daily keeps you mentally healthy and with lower risk of developing mental illness.

Exercising can also potentially help to treat some mental health conditions, such as mild depression and anxiety. In fact, research suggests that physical activity can be as similarly effective as antidepressants or psychological treatments like CBT (7).

That said, below are some of the well-known mental health benefits of exercise:

1. Reduced Stress

The contribution of exercise in mental and physical stress reduction has been well-documented (8). It is found that working out can lead to a vigorous release of certain stress chemicals that aid the brain in moderating stress. Interestingly, when the body is placed under regular physical stress, it learns to recover and adapt to both physical and mental stress.

2. More Energy

Exercise aids in blood flow increase, which helps in carrying oxygen and nutrients to our muscles, making us more energized and alert. Also, by helping us sleep better (more on that on the next point), exercise allows us to have an improved energy the following day.

Research suggests that people who work out regularly are more productive in their work and personal life. Moreover, it is also attributed to an increase in their positive self-talk, which greatly affects their perception of being full of energy (8).

Since people who exercise also opt for making healthy nutritional choices, they also tend to perceive themselves as having more energy – leading them to consume less caffeine every day (8).

3. Better Sleep

In order to recover from exercise, the brain makes you tired earlier and helps you sleep more soundly at night. The most profound effect of recovery from working out happens when the body recovers at night during our sleep. Without sleep, you cannot progress further with your exercise routine (8).

4. Improved Self-Confidence

Heading out to the gym more often gives you more confidence by getting your social skills “worked out.” This confidence that you get from your gym environment will be carried over to other aspects of your personal life and career, which includes your circle of friends and other social relationships. A great benefit of exercise also translates to an improvement on how you see yourself (positive self-image), how you speak about and to yourself (self-talk), and increases your perception of your worth (self-worth) (8).

5. Increased Happiness

Exercise stimulates an increase in the release of endorphins – or “happy chemicals.” Endorphins work in the same way as medicines for pain, which interact with your brain’s neurotransmitters. They are naturally released by the brain during exercise, reducing the feelings of depression while boosting the feeling of “euphoria” after you workout (8).

To have more boost of happiness in your system, exercising outdoors is a good idea (8).

6. Forming and Maintaining Good Interpersonal Relationships

Exercising with a friend or partner and spending quality time together can keep you motivated and feeling confident with exercise. It’s natural for people to find others who have the same interests that they have; this allows them to develop and maintain interpersonal relationships and satisfy the basic human need of belonging to a certain community. Doing so places a great impact on mental health and helps us succeed in achieving our goals for a fit mind and body (8).

7. Anxiety Alleviation

This is similar to how endorphins work; however, in addition to releasing endorphins, exercise helps to lessen the feelings of anxiety by giving your mind something to focus on, such as steady breathing (8).

Moreover, it has also been found that exercise works the same as a Swedish massage but is more successful for reducing anxiety than a bubble bath (8).

8. Better Cognitive Function

It is known that our cognitive functions tend to decline as we age. That said, regular exercise can improve the function of our hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and ability to learn. Due to adaptations on the hippocampus, people who regularly exercise are more likely to retain new information (8).

Studies on mice and humans prove that cardiovascular exercise, in particular, fosters a process called neurogenesis, wherein in new brains cells are created to improve overall brain performance (1).

Also, exercising prevents cognitive decline while boosting creativity and mental energy. So if you’re looking for inspiration today, consider taking a walk today (1).

9. Better Resilience

Exercise can help you build resilience and form healthy coping strategies when faced with emotional or mental challenges in life. Instead of resorting to negative means that can harm you and make your symptoms worse – such as drugs and alcohol – regular exercise is great to improve your immune system and help you reduce the impact of stress from problems (3).

How Can Exercise Help With Mental Illnesses?

Exercising regularly can reduce the symptoms of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, and also aid in your recovery (2).

1. Dementia

Studies that examined the risk factors for dementia show that physical activity serves as a protective factor – reducing the likelihood of people who do not have dementia to experience cognitive decline. More specifically, it shows that adults who participate in daily physical activity have approximately 20 percent to 30 percent lower risk for depression and dementia (5).

On one hand, staying physically active helps people who already developed dementia to delay further decline in functioning (5).

2. Depression

It has been found that physical activities can be great alternative treatments for mild to moderate depression. Whether it is used solely or in combination with medication or psychological therapy, the good thing about exercise is that it does not come with the stigma (nor side effects) that are sometimes attached to taking antidepressants or attending psychotherapy and counselling (5).

3. Anxiety

As a natural and effective anti-anxiety treatment, physical activity can help people with mild symptoms by reducing their levels of anxiety. Moreover, it may also help treat clinical anxiety by supporting self-management (3)(5).

It relieves stress and tension in the body while boosting your physical and mental energy and enhancing well-being through endorphin release. It works by helping you move and pay attention through mindfulness exercises like noticing the rhythm of your breathing or feeling your wind touch your skin. It helps you feel and focus on your body as you exercise – interrupting the constant worries that you have in your head (3).

4. ADHD

Exercising regularly is one of the most convenient and effective ways to alleviate ADHD symptoms, as it improves your motivation, concentration, mood, and memory. Moreover, staying physically active immediately boosts your brain’s norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine levels, aiding in focus and attention. That said, exercise works similarly to ADHD medications like Adderall (3).

How Can You Stay Motivated?

It can happen that taking the first step might seem tougher than what you expect, as there can be obstacles to exercise, particularly if you are experiencing a mental health concern. In order to stay motivated all throughout the exercise proper, it is important to practice mindfulness in order to relieve stress, feel better, and improve your mental health (2)(3).

Below are some barriers to exercise and how to overcome them:

1. Financial Concerns

Sometimes, what hinders our motivation to exercise revolves around not having enough financial resources to go to a gym or have a personal trainer. But, there are other ways for you to stay fit and get enough exercise, and most of it won’t even require expensive equipment or physical support. You can try watching video workout tutorials on various types of exercises with varying levels of intensity, or you can simply take your dog outside for a walk (2).

However, if your goal involves going out and staying active outside your comfort zone, there are available local community centers that often have affordable exercise groups.  If you have private health insurance, you can ask for assistance in availing gym membership as part of your mental health care plan (2).

2. Difficult Exercises

If you find it difficult to execute a particular physical activity, you may struggle finding motivation. But, to overcome this obstacle, you can choose an activity that you enjoy, or invite friends or family to help you stay motivated and stay on track. You can also think on how you can incorporate exercise in your daily routine and lifestyle, so it feels natural as you move (2).

Remind yourself that even small changes are helpful. To motivate yourself even further, you can try to keep track of your progress by using a fitness tracker to help you set goals and see how far you have improved on a particular task that you perceive as difficult (9).

3. Exhaustion

Feelings of tiredness, depression, and distress can make workout seem to make you feel worse. However, the opposite of it is true; physical activity is a good source of energy. According to studies, regular exercise significantly reduces fatigue and improves your energy levels (3).

To boost your energy and motivation to exercise, you can start by combining your exercise routine with a healthy diet (2). If you start to feel tired, it’s okay to take quick 5-minute walks. As you move more, you’ll get more energy and walk longer (3).

You can also make exercise more fun by listening to music or watching TV while you workout. Try to avoid doing the same type of exercise every day; you can make it more interesting by performing a combination of activities (9).

4. Busy Schedules

If you feel stressed on your daily busy schedules, it can be overwhelming to think of adding exercise as another obligation that you have to fulfill. However, if you think of exercise as a priority for you to fulfill other responsibilities in your life – like caring for your children or working late at night – and as a necessity for your mental health, it can encourage you to allot even little time to exercise. This way, you can still unlock the benefits of exercise little by little (3).

You can always find physical activities under any situation or weather condition – like taking walks at the mall or at the park, climbing stairs, working out at home (9). Try to make your everyday activities more active. For instance, you can wash your car yourself, walk to deliver a message instead of using your phone, or park farther away from your destination (9).

5. Feelings of Hopelessness and Doubt

Sometimes, it can be inevitable to become your own worst critic during the course of your exercise routine. However, it’s important to think well of yourself and realize that you are not alone in your journey. There are people of the same weight, age, and fitness level that you have, but you can use this as a motivation to rather improve yourself and be your best cheerleader (3).

If you haven’t exercised before, it’s never too late. You can find ways to comfortably become active; start with easy, low-impact activities (walking, dancing, etc.) every few minutes daily (3). Plus,

Also, you can have a friend to exercise with you (3). A workout partner – may it be your peers or family – makes it easy for you to exercise more frequently. The best part is that working out with others can be in the form of social activities that involve exercise, or in exercise groups or classes like dance classes, hiking clubs, yoga class, or joining a volleyball team (9).

6. Pain

It’s always best to talk to your doctor about ways to safely exercise, especially if you have a disability, arthritis, severe weight problem, injuries, or illnesses that could hamper your mobility. Feeling sharp pains from exercise should not be ignored. Thus, you can limit the risks for muscle and joint discomfort by exercising in water or dividing your exercise into shorter chunks of time (3).

Start Taking Care of Your Mental Health Today

How we think and what we feel affects how we function daily. That said, it’s important to take the first step to taking care of your mental health today. Aim to be fit physically and mentally and make it a point that you look after your mental health every day. Simple movements matter. It’s time to get up and live life – start your mental health journey with exercise today!

References:

  1. https://www.waldenu.edu/online-bachelors-programs/bs-in-psychology/resource/five-mental-benefits-of-exercise
  2. https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/exercise-and-mental-health
  3. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-health-benefits-of-exercise.htm
  4. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/benefits-of-exercise
  5. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/how-to-using-exercise
  6. https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/physical-activity-and-your-mental-health/about-physical-activity/
  7. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/exercise-and-mental-health
  8. https://truefitness.com/resources/mental-emotional-benefits-exercise/
  9. https://medlineplus.gov/benefitsofexercise.html
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