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The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

There are many reasons to exercise such as looking to get into shape or shed a few pounds. You could enjoy some popular ways to exercise, like playing a sport or hiking to name two examples. It could be at the advice of your doctor. Exercise can also be a great way to improve your mental health through several different ways, making it a multi-factored benefit. The signs that exercise can help your mental wellbeing in both the short-term and for years down the road are all there. So, whether you’re looking for a quick pick-me-up, to head-off mental health issues, or are looking for another reason to exercise, here you go!

Mood Booster

As we mentioned earlier, exercising can give you a quick mood boost, though it’s more complex than simply saying exercise makes you feel better. Of course, that is part of it, with there being some evidence that exercise can activate both serotonin and dopamine in our bodies (both of which are “feel good” hormones). But this effect isn’t well understood at this point and likely isn’t the only aspect of exercise helping out here. Exercise is also an effective stress-relief strategy, helping you out both immediately and in the long-term. These aren’t the only ways that exercise can help boost your mood, though.

There is also a large body of evidence that shows exercise can have a positive influence on self-esteem, perceived fitness, and body image, even if your own BMI isn’t affected.

Exercise can benefit mood through a number of smaller, but significant ways. For example, exercise can help improve sleep, which plays a part in improving your mood. Of course, there is also a large body of evidence that shows exercise can have a positive influence on self-esteem, perceived fitness, and body image, even if your own BMI isn’t affected. This influence can be boosted if you feel a sense of accomplishment about your exercise, whether that’s by meeting a goal or winning a tennis match against a friend. Finally (for this article, at least), exercising can induce a state of mindfulness, which further busts stress and boost your mood.

Combats Mental Illness

If you make the commitment to exercising regularly and adding it to your weekly schedule (don’t forget, recovery days are important) you may begin to experience the long-term benefits of working out. Of course, these are often tied to the physical (improved fitness, weight loss, etc.), but this article is about mental health benefits, and exercise certainly has long-term benefits there, too. Primarily, there is a lot of evidence that exercise can help prevent or treat (as part of an overall program) mental illness and conditions like depression and anxiety. We can start with the obvious, which is that by promoting the short-term stress and self-esteem benefits of exercise, you’ll protect against those conditions in the long run.

One study’s findings left the researchers believing that exercise may be as effective as antidepressants in treating depression.

The preventive qualities don’t end there, however. One 2017 study of nearly 34,000 adults estimated that as much as 12 percent of all studied cases of depression could have been prevented if all participants engaged in an hour of exercise weekly. Another study found that exercise may also be incredibly protective against anxiety disorders. Then there’s the research into treatment of these disorders, which comes up as shockingly effective. For example, one study’s findings left the researchers believing that exercise may be as effective as antidepressants in treating depression. Similar findings have been made with anxiety, as well. The amazing thing is these are only a small sampling of the studies that have shown exercise’s ability to combat the onset of mental health disorders and to possibly help treat them.

Promotes Brain Function

Some of the benefits may have to do with the way exercise can improve our brain function through a process called neurogenesis — or the process that creates new brain cells. Neurogenesis is a normal function of the brain, but studies show that exercise can increase it to help create new brain cells. Furthermore, exercise can improve brain function by improving blood flow to the brain, reducing stress hormones in the body, and reducing inflammation.

It’s important to sustain the exercise, as one study found that routines of three to four weeks or longer are where the real benefits began to be seen.

Most interestingly of all, perhaps, is the evidence that exercise today may help improve how your brain functions as we age, potentially slowing cognitive decline. Neurogenesis and neuroplasticity play a large role in this with one study of patients over the age of 50 seeing marked improvement in cognitive function from exercise. Other research has linked exercise with improvements in memory and further sustained cognitive function. Exercise throughout your midlife may even lead to lower rates of dementia later in life. It’s important that this exercise is sustained to have long-reaching effects, as was found by one study that looked at the cognitive effects of exercise for one week and beyond. Exercise routines of three to four weeks or longer are where the real benefits began to be seen.

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If you’re trying to live a healthier lifestyle, exercise will become a regular activity to take part in, if only for the physical benefits you may experience. That said, the mental health boosts you can get from exercise cannot, and should not, be overlooked. Between the immediate mood improvement, to the mental health disorder prevention and treatment, to the sustained cognitive function, physical activity has never looked so smart!