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Exercise and Mental Health

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is how important our mental health is.  Many people discovered just how much exercise positively impacted their mental health during those trying years.  Exercise has been widely recognized as an effective tool for improving mental health, from releasing endorphins to reducing stress hormones and improving brain function.

Endorphins are chemicals the body produces that can improve mood and reduce pain. Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, which can lead to feelings of happiness and well-being. This is why exercise is often recommended as a way to help improve symptoms of depression and anxiety. No one has ever felt worse after moving their body.

In addition to endorphins, exercise can also reduce the levels of stress hormones in the body. When we experience stress, our bodies release hormones such as cortisol, which can harm our mental health. However, exercise can help to reduce these stress hormones, leading to a decrease in anxiety and depression.

Exercise also has a positive impact on brain function. When we exercise, blood flow to the brain increases, which can improve cognitive function and memory. This is why exercise is often recommended for older adults at risk of cognitive decline. Regular exercise can also improve the quality of sleep, which is essential for maintaining good mental health.

Another way that exercise can improve mental health is by providing a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence. When we set fitness goals and achieve them, we feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. This can lead to increased self-esteem and confidence, which can help combat depression and anxiety.

Exercise can also provide a social outlet, which is important for maintaining good mental health. Joining a fitness class or group can offer the opportunity to connect with others who share similar interests. This can help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, which are common among people with mental health conditions.

Of course, we all are aware that exercise can improve overall physical health. Regular exercise can reduce the risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. These conditions are often associated with poor mental health, so by improving physical fitness through exercise, we can also improve our mental health.

For many starting, an exercise regime can seem daunting. You don’t have to feel good to start; you have to start to feel good.  Exercise does not have to be intense or time-consuming to impact mental health positively. Even light exercise, such as walking or yoga, can be beneficial. The key is finding an activity you enjoy and can incorporate into your daily routine.  Start with as little as a 10-minute walk to see and feel improvement.

Numerous studies support the positive effects of physical activity on various aspects of mental well-being. Here are a few key findings from such studies:

  1. Depression: A meta-analysis by Cooney et al. (2013) found that exercise is effective in reducing symptoms of depression, particularly for those with mild-to-moderate depression. The study concluded that exercise could be used as a treatment alongside medication and therapy. (Reference: Cooney, G. M., Dwan, K., Greig, C. A., Lawlor, D. A., Rimer, J., Waugh, F. R., … & Mead, G. E. (2013). Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (9).)
  2. Anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis by Herring et al. (2010) concluded that exercise interventions could significantly reduce anxiety symptoms. The effects were found to be similar across different types of exercise and intensity levels. (Reference: Herring, M. P., O’Connor, P. J., & Dishman, R. K. (2010). The effect of exercise training on anxiety symptoms among patients: a systematic review. Archives of internal medicine, 170(4), 321-331.)
  3. Stress reduction: A study by Rimmele et al. (2009) showed that exercise can buffer the effects of stress on the brain, leading to reduced stress-related disorders. The researchers found that participants who exercised regularly had a better stress response than those who were sedentary. (Reference: Rimmele, U., Zellweger, B. C., Marti, B., Seiler, R., Mohiyeddini, C., Ehlert, U., & Heinrichs, M. (2009). Trained men show lower cortisol, heart rate and psychological responses to psychosocial stress than untrained men. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(6), 818-825.)
  4. Cognitive function: A meta-analysis by Northey et al. (2017) found that exercise can improve cognitive function, specifically in attention, processing speed, and memory. The study highlighted the importance of incorporating aerobic and resistance training to maximize mental benefits. (Reference: Northey, J. M., Cherbuin, N., Pumpa, K. L., Smee, D. J., & Rattray, B. (2018). Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 52(3), 154-160.)
  5. Quality of life and self-esteem: A systematic review by Biddle and Asare (2011) concluded that exercise could enhance self-esteem and overall quality of life. The study found that physical activity benefits mental health across all age groups, including children, adolescents, and adults. (Reference: Biddle, S. J., & Asare, M. (2011). Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: a review of reviews. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45(11), 886-895.)

While exercise is essential for improving mental health, it is not a substitute for professional treatment. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional. They can provide the support and guidance you need to manage your symptoms and improve your overall well-being.

Shara Vigeant, BA, NSCA-CPT, CFSC