The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Whether you want to boost your mood, find an outlet for stress, or feel strong, moving your body can help.

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Too often when we think of exercise, we make the assumption that it is for people who want to lose weight, or who want to achieve a sleek shape. Exercise is seen as a punishing regimen. Perhaps compounding that belief is its prescription by doctors and other medical professionals as a means to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and even early death.

But with that mindset, we overlook the immense benefits that exercise can have on our mental well-being. It isn’t just an aerobic activity: it can have a positive impact on depression, anxiety, ADHD, the impact of stress on our bodies, and our overall well-being.

The mental health benefits of exercise

As we mentioned above, the mental health benefits of exercise are profound. It can:

  • Prevent depression. Authors of a study found that those who didn’t exercise were 44 percent more likely to become depressed than those who exercised for up to 2 hours per week.

  • Reduce stress. Exercise is a great way to process stress hormones, providing relief from a busy day and moderating the body’s ability to respond to stress.

  • Treat chronic depression. Exercise has now been shown as an effective treatment for major depressive disorder, when used alone and with other treatments.

  • Lighten your mood because of the release of feel-good hormones (endorphins). In turn, this can make problems seem less overwhelming.

  • Improve self-esteem and confidence because it promotes a positive self-image.

  • Increase energy levels and stamina. Short bursts of energy have been shown to create more energy — even if you were tired beforehand — as well as mental alertness, and it can even increase our capacity to be more productive for longer.

  • Reduce the symptoms of ADHD. Exercise produces dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which all impact focus and attention, much like prescription drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall.

  • Reduce the harm of addiction. Due to the increase in feel-good hormones, people who exercise are less likely to resort to more harmful solutions to reduce stress.

  • Improve sleep. Relieving stress through exercise leads to a feeling of relaxation, which in turn promotes sleep. Exercise also helps to regulate sleeping patterns.

  • Maintain mental health as we grow older. Studies have shown that those who exercise have greater volume in the areas of the brain that control memory and thinking.

  • Improve emotional regulation and the capacity to improve cognitive flexibility and produce new brain cells (neurogenesis). In other words, exercise improves the brain's ability to develop new behaviors, acknowledge new information, and come up with new solutions.

  • Prevent degenerative disease, like Alzheimer’s. Exercise has been shown to boost chemicals in the brain that support and prevent the decline of the part of the brain (hippocampus) that is responsible for memory and learning.

  • Improve brain performance. Exercise has been shown to increase proteins in the brain that help with decision-making, learning, and the capacity for higher-level thinking.

  • Reduce cholesterol and improve cardiovascular health.

  • Help you to lose weight.

  • Relieve the symptoms of PTSD and trauma. Exercise is a great way to help those who have suffered with trauma to move their body out of fight-or-flight response, thus re-regulating the nervous system.

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How to move more

Incorporating exercise into your day is easier than you might think. There are many ways we can find time to move more. Even five minutes counts. And there are some things you can do that take zero time out of your day, and may even save you time:

  • Bike to work. Often this is even a quicker way to get to work than sitting in traffic.

  • Try a standing desk.

  • Get off the bus two stops earlier and walk the rest of the way. Build up to three to five stops earlier, and try it on your commute home too.

  • Make exercise a social activity. Instead of going to the movies or hanging out sitting down somewhere, try a group exercise class, bowling, an escape game, or even a hike.

  • Get a dog, or offer to walk a friend’s dog. Not only do you get the feel-good benefits of puppy time, but you also get a boost of energy from the walk.

  • Take your lunch break outside, and spend the last ten to fifteen minutes walking around the block. You’ll return to work feeling energized and ready to tackle the rest of the day.

  • Hire a personal trainer or go to group training classes. You’re more likely to attend when you’re accountable to someone else, or to a group of people with the same goal.

  • Find a new hobby that incorporates exercise, such as basketball, dance, martial arts, or hiking.

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Please note this blog is not intended as medical advice nor should it replace it. If you are suffering with symptoms of depression, please seek the guidance of your doctor.


Olivia Pennelle