What Are the Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health?

Health & Wellness

Exercise can help improve your mood by helping to reduce and alleviate feelings of anxiety or stress.

Last updated: 29 June 2022
6 min read
What Are the Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health?

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live our lives, and it took a toll on our mental health. With the pandemic came rising rates of anxiety, depression and stress. As modern humans, we're struggling with mental health and depression symptoms.

Exercising has a long-standing, well-established benefit on mental health. It has been proven in scientific research and in clinical trials—and anecdotally. Think of the last time you worked out. You felt good, right? Not just proud of yourself for completing your workout, but mentally different, as if your state of well-being shifted. That's the effect of exercise. It's a measurable, biochemically testifiable state of enhanced mental well-being.

The best part about physical activity is that anyone can do it. All types of exercise count. Physical activity is a treatment without side effects or warning labels. Regular exercise can be used in combination with other treatments such as medication, or by itself. An exercise plan can be a fulfilling social experience or an opportunity to get outside. Increasing your activity levels can help improve markers of your physical health, such as your blood pressure and body weight.

The benefits of physical activity are too vast to hit them all in a single article. But what are the benefits of exercise for your mental health and mental well-being? How can you feel better from the inside out by using exercise as a mood-boosting strategy?

Why Does Exercise Make You Feel Good?

  1. 1.Feel-Good Chemicals

    Endorphins are feel-good hormones. They work in combination with other neurotransmitters and molecules such as dopamine, serotonin and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). In actuality, endorphins are just one piece of the puzzle.

    When you start exercising, changes happen in your body and brain. Your heart rate increases, blood flow circulates more rapidly, oxygen is transported to your muscles and vital organs and your brain shifts in response to the training stimuli.

    Those feel-good chemicals are produced and released in the brain to help you. For example, endorphins are released that act as analgesics. This means that they help to reduce the perception of pain. Exercising can be hard or painful—pushing for that final rep can be a challenge. Endorphins help your body push through, triggering a feeling of satisfaction and positivity.

  2. 2.Lasting Brain Changes

    BDNF is linked to neuroplasticity. That is, the brain's ability to modify itself to perform better. In fact, BDNF plays a role in neurogenesis, or the process of growing new brain cells. As stated by researchers in a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, "Neurogenesis significantly improves cognitive performance and protects against neurodegenerative phenomena".

    How does BDNF, neuroplasticity and neurogenesis improve mental health? Neuroplasticity means your brain can change. So, while you may be genetically susceptible to a mental health disorder, your brain has the power to adjust and modify by forming new neural pathways.

    The stressors of life—a stressful job, a breakup, financial hardship—all affect neural plasticity and may lead to depression and anxiety. But things can also go the other way. By adjusting your daily habits, behaviour and thought patterns, you can create new neural pathways and lasting brain changes that improve your mental health and decrease your stress levels.

  3. 3.Increased Blood Flow

    The increased blood and oxygen flow alone is enough to bring about a boosted mental state. Blood transports oxygen and nutrients that are essential for a high functioning brain. An oxygenated brain can simply work better—specifically, the hippocampus. This is the region of your brain associated with memory and learning and the area responsible for regulating motivation, mood, pleasure, pain and more.

    Studies have found that reduced cerebral oxygen levels are a predictor of depression and depressive symptoms. It's a double-edged sword, with depression also causing reduced oxygen levels. When the brain has less oxygen, brain cells malfunction and can even die. Some research has supported this, finding that mental health disorders are associated with a loss in brain matter.

  4. 4.You May Also Establish a Sense of Pride and Power

    You build self-confidence in your abilities by following through with action. If you set yourself the goal of waking up at 6am to do a morning workout five days a week, but by day two you're pressing snooze, you're not going to feel great about yourself. Exercise can be used as a tool to practise self-care, while building self-confidence and self-assurance in your abilities.

    A clinical trial published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment in 2016 found that physical activity is directly associated with self-esteem, perceived physical fitness and body image. Interestingly, there weren't any clear links with body mass index (BMI).

    What this tells us is that you don't need to be a certain weight to get the benefits from exercise and physical activity. Anyone at any experience level can build self-esteem and confidence by sticking to regular exercise. It will make you feel happier in your body, which alters the way you inhabit the world.

    You don't have to run a marathon or lift a new personal record (PR) to feel pride and power after your workout. Simply, you just have to commit to an exercise programme. Try your hardest, be consistent. That's all it takes.

Research Suggests Exercise May Help Improve Your Mental Health

Experts say that low mood, ruminating thoughts, psychological distress, excess fear or worry, or a lack of motivation, inability to concentrate and fatigue are all considered symptoms of mental illness. Each mental health symptom can appear alone or in combination with other symptoms. A health professional may even put you on medication, like antidepressants depending on your symptoms and family history. However, regular physical activity may help to reduce or alleviate these symptoms as well.

One study observed the effect exercise had on rates of depression by asking a group of participants to attend exercise classes for 10 weeks. The researchers found that the intervention group experienced a 30 percent decline in depression and any associated symptom.

Another study with 357 participants tested the levels of anxiety in a group of patients with anxiety before and after exercising. The researchers found that after a year-long trial, those who were assigned to the exercise group had a significant reduction in anxiety.

A third study that focused on yoga measured markers of stress, anxiety and depression. Published by the International Journal of Preventive Medicine, it found that in a four-week trial, yoga was able to drastically decrease symptoms of mental health conditions and improve perceived quality of life.

Get More From Your Workout

Exercise outside or in a group for an added mental health bonus. A 2015 study published in PNAS discovered that in a group of participants, those who walked in nature for 90 minutes had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex. This is the region of your brain associated with ruminating thoughts, a symptom of anxiety.

Exercising with friends or doing physical activity in a group can have advantageous outcomes for your mental health. A study published by the Med Sci Sports Exercise journal found that aerobic group sports increase mental resilience and general mental health. This is due to the biochemical benefits of exercise, combined with the component of social connectivity.

Having the right gear can help you get started; make sure you browse Nike.com for some ideas.

Originally published: 29 December 2021

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