Exercise has numerous benefits on mental health, including reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress while improving mood and cognitive function. The relationship between physical activity and mental health has been recognized and studied for centuries.
People as early as the ancient Greeks and Romans recognized that physical activity was important for maintaining mental health. However, it wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the scientific study of the relationship between physical activity and mental health began in earnest.
In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers started to explore the relationship between physical activity and mental health. Their findings showed that physical activity had numerous benefits on mental health, including reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, improving mood, and boosting cognitive function.
This evidence has helped to establish physical activity as an important aspect of mental health treatment and prevention and has led to the development of numerous exercise-based interventions for mental health conditions.
How does exercise help mental health?
Exercise is the key to unlocking your healthiest and happiest self. Sure, you likely know about the obvious physical benefits like strengthening of the heart and other muscles, improvement of the immune response, digestion, sleep, and so much more, but some of the most remarkable benefits of exercise are its effects on the brain (ie: mental health).
- Produces natural mood-boosting chemicals
Exercise causes the brain to produce feel-good neurochemicals like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin.
Endorphins provide a sense of well-being and also reduce pain sensitivity. Dopamine is tied to the reward center of the brain and makes us feel good when we accomplish something. It also plays a direct role in causing several different types of mental illnesses. Too-low dopamine levels are linked to depression, ADHD, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s.
Serotonin regulates mood, and at normal levels can help you feel calmer, more emotionally stable, and more focused. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and other mood disorders, PTSD, and several types of anxiety disorders.
- Reduced stress
Exercise also produces norepinephrine which is one of the chemicals produced when the fight-or-flight response is triggered as well as a mood-boosting hormone. Its effects aren’t as direct as that of endorphins or dopamine. Instead, norepinephrine’s ability to improve your mood is tied to its ability to prevent serotonin uptake, meaning that it keeps any serotonin that was produced by your brain, sticking around longer post-workout.
Norepinephrine also actively lowers levels of cortisol (a.k.a. the stress hormone) in the body, for a one-two punch of making you feel great.
Low levels of serotonin are associated with anxiety, depression, ADHD, and sleeping problems.
- Improved memory
Regular exercise has been shown to increase the volume of the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is responsible for memory and learning. While memory loss isn’t necessarily directly responsible for mental health issues, forgetfulness can cause stress (or even harm) to ourselves, which can then heighten the risk of developing a mental illness.
- Prevent cognitive decline
Physical activity has been linked to neurogenesis, the growth of new brain cells, which can improve cognitive function and delay the onset of age-related cognitive decline.
How to improve mental health with exercise
Improving mental health with exercise can be accomplished by making physical activity a regular part of your routine. It is recommended to engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking, five days a week.
Resistance training should be performed two to three days a week, using a variety of exercises to target different muscle groups. It is important to find an activity that you enjoy, as this will increase your motivation to continue exercising.
Setting achievable goals, such as increasing the duration or intensity of your exercise, can also help to keep you motivated. Consistency is the key to achieving optimal results.
The best exercises for mental health
The most beneficial types of exercise for mental health include aerobic exercises, more commonly referred to as ‘cardio’, such as running, cycling, and swimming (though weightlifting can also be beneficial for mental health).
Cardio exercises are ones that get your heart rate way up and thus, require your lungs to take in more oxygen. They have been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improve mood, and increase feelings of happiness and well-being.
Resistance training has been linked to increased self-esteem, body image, and feelings of control, which can improve the psychological roots of mental illness.
Get Fit, Feel Great
The relationship between physical activity and mental health is complex and multi-faceted. Talk to a mental health professional today to discuss how you could benefit from a workout regimen.