It’s common knowledge that exercise is great for your physical health, helping you to live longer and have less health issues. But did you know that regular exercise can also have a hugely positive effect on your mental health? Whether it be cardio, strength training or team sports, the benefits are there to be had. Often overlooked, these benefits can help to treat stress, depression, anxiety, PTSD and ADHD. With an estimated 1 in 5 Americans living with a mental health condition, this approach is more important than ever.
In this article, we’ll be looking at how exercise can help in each of these areas, and why we think exercise can go a long way to supporting mental health. We’ve also created this infographic, showing the 7 main ways exercise can benefit your mental health:
When stress levels are high, you can always count on exercise to reset the balance. Going for a run, lifting weights or rolling out the yoga mat will all help your body and mind to de-stress. Exercising encourages your body to produce higher levels of endorphins. These are chemicals that relieve stress and pain and boost feelings of happiness. This is what causes that great feeling of contentment post-workout, often referred to as “runner’s high”.
A common treatment of stress, and one that I often use myself, is meditation. This gives your brain something to focus on, such as your breath, as you let the day’s worries and tensions drain away. Exercise can have a similar effect, leaving you with clear head and feeling of calm. The repetitive action of certain cardio workouts, such as running and swimming, acts like a mantra and provides a welcome distraction. Team sports, such as football and basketball, also force you to move out of your head and in to the moment.
Last but not least, exercise is known to help with self-confidence levels and improve quality of sleep, both of which can reduce stress.
Depression is often treated with medication, however, exercise is a natural remedy that can also be extremely effective. Although some aspects are still unclear, research has shown that exercise can decrease the symptoms of depression. As we’ve already mentioned, exercising releases endorphins, or “happy chemicals”, in the brain. This happens most effectively during high-intensity exercise. Longer periods of exercise, such as regular walking, can also improve brain function and help you to feel better. This is caused by an increase in nerve cell growth and connections in the brain, and can contribute to an improvement in symptoms of depression.
Regular exercise is shown to ease chronic anxiety and panic attacks. The reasons for this overlap with the benefits that impact stress and depression. Having regular workouts can provide routine and structure, along with a welcome distraction from daily life. Increased self-esteem and social contact are other psychological benefits that can help with anxiety. Levels of serotonin and dopamine are also impacted by exercise, both of which affect anxiety levels. Don’t feel you have run a marathon or climb Everest to feel this either. Even moderate exercise, a few times a week, can be enough for you to feel a positive impact.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur in people that have experienced a traumatic event, such as an accident or assault. This can lead to flashbacks, nightmares, depression and many other mental health issues. Due to this, people with PTSD often avoid regular exercise. However, studies have shown that a weekly workout program can lead to a decrease in symptoms of PTSD. The other physical and mental benefits that come with it will only help. Symptoms of depression, energy levels and sleep quality will all start to feel a positive effect too.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) results in difficulty focusing and being overly active, amongst other things. This is usually observed in children, but can also continue in to adulthood. Adults with ADHD tend to have less dopamine in their brain, which is the neurotransmitter responsible for levels of attention and focus. As we’ve already seen, exercise can increase the levels of dopamine in the body, having a similar effect to many ADHD medications. Not only this, working out regularly reduces other mental health problems and increases brain function. Both of these things help to further ease symptoms of the disorder.
In itself, socializing is an amazing tool for supporting mental health and well-being. Plenty of exercise can involve interacting with others, playing in teams and meeting new people. This makes the social aspect of exercise a nice added bonus to all of the other benefits it already provides. Being around other people has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, which is an experience we can all relate to. Having a strong social circle and support is also incredibly valuable in difficult times. This is something that sport can go a long way to helping. I’ve met many of my closest friends through weekly football meetups. There is even evidence to suggest that increased social contact results in a lower risk of dementia, according to a University College London study.
In modern society, low self-esteem is a common issue that many of us struggle with. The many benefits of exercise have the overall effect of an increase in self-confidence. Exercising isn’t always easy, particularly when starting out. Sticking to a regular exercise plan will give you a sense of achievement, and an increased confidence in your ability to tackle life. The physical benefits of exercise also result in a healthier body image, which is your perception of your own appearance. Along with this, you’ll feel the previously mentioned boosted energy levels and increased happiness. All of these things combine to form an environment in which your self-esteem can flourish.
Support & Getting Started
We’ve covered how exercise can improve your mental health, but how can you get started with a workout plan? What types of exercise are best? If you’re new to regular exercise, it can be a little overwhelming. The good news is, any exercise is better than none. Start simple and start slow. Just 20-30 mins of moderate exercise, a few times week, is enough to get you started and feeling some benefit. If you’re looking for more advice, we have a couple of guides that may help:
- How To Start Working Out: A Beginner’s Guide – this is perfect is you’re a beginner, or if you’ve had a break from working out. We’ve tried to cram in all of our tips and advice on starting to exercise, making a plan and staying motivated.
- How To Build Your Ultimate Home Gym – if you don’t like gyms and you want to start getting fit from home, this may help. We’ve included everything you need to get set-up and started on a budget.
- 15 Amazing Benefits Of Exercise – we’ve looked at the mental benefits, but what about the others? If you’re interested, we’ve put together this guide and illustration to show all of the ways exercise can impact your health.
If you’ve experienced difficulties with mental health, ensure you seek professional help and advice. Below are a couple of organizations focused on providing support for mental health in the UK and US:
Mental health is an important topic that, thankfully, has been getting more attention in recent years. More and more, exercise is being adopted as a treatment for mental health problems, and it’s easy to see why. Stress, depression, anxiety, PTSD and ADHD have all been shown to benefit from regular exercise. On top of that, increased self-esteem and socializing can support resilience in mental health issues. Whilst there are many other valuable treatments available, it’s clear to see that regular exercise is a remedy that can’t be ignored.