The Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health
There’s a strong link between mental health and physical activity. Exercise isn’t just fantastic for the body; it’s also invaluable to our brains. We tend to focus on the physical benefits of exercise, but working up a sweat is just as important for our minds.
Amongst other factors, exercise releases feel-good chemicals while reducing stress hormones, making it a natural treatment for everything from depression and anxiety to stress and insomnia.
Let’s take a look at all the benefits of exercise on mental health and why you should be getting your recommended 30 minutes a day!
Table of contents:
- How exercise affects the brain
- 5 psychological benefits of exercise
- Exercise and depression
- Exercise and anxiety
- Exercise and stress
- Exercise and concentration
- Exercise and sleep
- Secondary links between exercise and mental health
- 5 great exercises for mental health
- The takeaway
How exercise affects the brain
Firstly, it’s crucial to understand how exercise affects the brain. Exercise influences lots of different complex processes in the brain that all play a role in making us feel good:
Endorphins – Exercise releases endorphins. Endorphins are the feel-good chemicals produced naturally by the nervous system to cope with pain or stress. They can produce a powerful, euphoric feeling during exercise, known as a ‘runners’ high’.
Seratonin – Exercise also releases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that stabilises mood and emotions and is also linked to regulating our body clocks.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) – Vigorous exercise increases Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) – a naturally occurring amino acid that serves as a neurotransmitter in our central nervous system. When it attaches to a protein called the GABA receptor, it has a calming effect on the body.
Endocannabinoids – Studies have discovered a link between exercise and endocannabinoids – molecules that work on cannabinoid receptors. Endocannabinoids influence positive effects, including reduction of anxiety and stress and improved learning and memory.
Cortisol – Exercise also has a positive effect by reducing the body’s primary stress hormone, cortisol. Responsible for our fight or flight response, cortisol increases heart rate and blood pressure.
With this information, scientists have determined numerous proven benefits of exercise on mental health. It’s all a matter of chemistry! Here’s a look at five main ways exercise and mental health are linked.
5 psychological benefits of exercise
- Exercise can help depression
- Exercise can improve anxiety
- Exercise reduces stress and tension
- Exercise boosts concentration and memory
- Exercise can improve sleep quality
Let’s look into these in more detail.
Depression can make you feel fatigued and low in energy. For this reason, finding the motivation to get moving can be really tough. But in actual fact, exercise can make you feel more energised and awake once you get going.
Because of the serotonin and the endorphins it releases, it’s also a brilliant mood booster. Exercising outdoors in the sunshine will be particularly helpful, as sunshine naturally increases serotonin in our brains too.
Exercise can help anxiety in similar ways. As well as releasing feel-good chemicals, it can help by distracting the mind from dwelling on anxious thoughts. A repetitive motion like running or swimming can give the brain a rhythm to focus on instead.
Moving your body also reduces tension in your muscles, which contributes to lowering anxiety. It doesn’t matter what type of exercise you do; anything that gets you moving will help you feel better.
Not only does exercise release feel-good chemicals, but it actually reduces our stress hormones too. This is why it’s so good for relieving stress, tension and anger. Physically pushing your body with cardio or weight lifting can help work out tension and emotional stress.
Many people also feel the benefits of exercises like yoga and pilates, as the slow movements and breathing exercises involved have a calming effect on the body. Deep breathing sends a signal to the nervous system to calm down and relax.
Concentration and memory
Exercise helps concentration, memory and cognitive function in a few different ways.
Firstly, getting the blood pumping increases the oxygen to our brain, making it perform better. This is why drinking water also helps clear brain fog.
It’s the section of our brains called the hippocampus that responds well to aerobic exercise. And it happens to be this part of the brain that’s involved with learning and memory. One study found that exercise can help our hippocampus grow, increasing neurocognitive function, enhancing learning, and improving retention.
Additionally, exercise stimulates the release of growth factors. These are chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells and the survival of new brain cells, plus the growth of new blood vessels in our brains.
According to the Sleep Foundation, exercise can improve our sleep quality and reduce the time it takes us to fall asleep. Exercise helps to reset our circadian rhythm (our natural body clock) and release serotonin, both factors in getting a good night’s rest.
This is why some sleep disorders like insomnia can be improved with exercise. In fact, one study showed that in four weeks, regular exercise can help people with chronic insomnia fall asleep up to 13 minutes faster and stay asleep 18 minutes longer.
A better night’s sleep means more energy, better cognitive function and usually a better mood.
Secondary links between exercise and mental health
Alongside boosting our mood and helping us sleep better, exercising regularly can have a secondary positive effect on our mental wellbeing too. For example, many people find exercise leads to:
- Improved self-esteem
- Body confidence
- A sense of pride
- Making new friends
These aspects are a knock-on effect of exercise that help improve happiness too. Whether it’s building muscle or losing weight, working out can do wonders for body confidence and general self-esteem. Achieving a fitness goal or smashing a PB is another great way to boost your confidence and feel a sense of pride.
You may also find your sports club or gym class is a great way to meet new friends and increase your social circle, which can also positively impact mental well-being.
5 great exercises for mental health
The best way to stick to a routine long-term is to find an exercise that you actually enjoy doing. It’s easy to lose motivation, especially if you’re feeling low in mood and energy.
That’s why it’s important to pick an exercise you enjoy. If you dread the treadmill, why not try weight lifting in the gym instead? If you hate HIIT workouts, yoga could be your new favourite weeknight gym class.
There are lots of different types of exercises you can choose from: you might like to stick to one or vary your routine at the gym or at home. These are some great exercises for mental health you can try:
Running is a great way to get moving. Aside from a pair of running shoes, it can be completely free if you go for a run outside. Plus, you get the added benefit of fresh air, nature and sunshine – all added mood boosters.
Some people prefer to run on a treadmill indoors, where the temperature and gradient are more controlled (and you have the option of watching your latest Netflix binge). Either option works! Introduce running into your routine for a release of those feel-good endorphins and get that runner’s high.
As we mentioned, yoga can be fantastic for relieving stress. Breathing exercises are a surprisingly powerful way to calm the mind and body down. If a meditative, calming exercise sounds appealing to you, add yoga to your weekly schedule.
Studies have shown that meditation reduces activity in the brain’s limbic system, which controls emotions. For this reason, yoga can help you react with a more tempered response when dealing with stress.
Swimming also releases endorphins and can be a great stress reliever. Whether it be a speedy front crawl to get the heart rate going or a gentle breaststroke for relaxation, swimming is adaptable and you can go at your own pace. It can also be a great low-impact exercise for people with joint pain or other injuries.
If you want to take it up a notch, consider wild swimming. Connecting with nature is known to be good for our mental well-being, so taking a dip in a beautiful lake or the sea can be a fantastic mood booster too.
Got some stress and tension you need to work out? Boxing, kickboxing or other forms of martial arts can be a great way to do it. Not only will you get a boost of endorphins, but punching and kicking can be an amazing way to let off some steam. If you’re someone with pent up aggression, these types of exercises can give you a safe space to unleash it and also help you improve self-control and focus.
Even if you don’t, boxing can also be incredibly empowering, and the combat-based sport can help improve overall self-confidence.
- Resistance training
Resistance training includes any exercise that involves pushing or pulling against resistance. This can be free weights like barbells and dumbbells, weight machines or using resistance bands.
Not only is resistance training great for building and toning muscle, but one study showed that resistance exercises could significantly ease symptoms of depression. Putting our muscles to use releases endorphins, relieves stress and makes the body feel powerful and healthy.
Many studies have shown us that the link between exercise and mental health can be utilised to help many different mental health conditions. Though some conditions like depression and anxiety might need the help of medication, exercise can be a fantastic natural aid for improving mental wellbeing.
The benefits of exercise on mental health are numerous. And the best thing is, you don’t need to have a high level of fitness or be great at a sport to benefit from it. Any moderate exercise is great for the body and the brain. Whether you prefer yoga or boxing, all exercise triggers multiple processes in the brain that make us feel great.
Everyone can benefit from regular exercise, whether it be simply getting a better night’s sleep or improving concentration and memory.
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