Exercise and How it Affects Mental Health

We know that physical exercise is good for your mental health. While it is not a complete cure or treatment for mental illness itself, it can be highly beneficial in improving and maintaining your mental health, as well as preventing deterioration. Below we’ve gathered a few of the reasons why exercise is an important piece of your mental health care routine and how it affects your mental wellbeing.

Exercise is known to improve mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and low mood, and can also have a positive impact on self-esteem and cognitive functioning. Aerobic exercise, which include activities such as jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, dancing, etc., can play a role in reducing anxiety and depression. Cardiovascular exercise is shown to improve mental health by increasing blood circulation to the brain. This increased blood flow impacts the limbic system, amygdala, and hippocampus. Meaning, mental health benefits of exercise can include a positive impact on motivation, mood, and memory in addition to decreasing stress.


Other than the physiological benefit of exercise, there are other therapeutic reasons that your mental health benefits from exercise. Exercise and movement has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal, which are factors that can negatively impact your mental health. Depending upon how you engage with exercise or physical activity, you also can benefit from the distraction, self-efficacy, and social interaction it provides.


Distraction from anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns can be incredibly helpful, although it’s best utilized as a temporary skill. When you are engaging in exercise, you have the ability to turn the focus towards your body, your breathing, and any other physical sensations you may be experiencing at that moment. Exercise can serve as a way to ground you back into your body if you experience dissociation or panic related symptoms. In addition, if you are comfortable working out around others, group classes or teaming up with a friend can be a great mental health benefit to exercise. Since isolation is also a large risk factor for diminished mental health, any time you are able to connect with a friend or others in general increases the likelihood of positively impacting your mental health.


In order to get the most benefit out of exercising, consider the following tips and strategies:


  Engage in at least 2 and a half hours of moderate level intensity physical activity (such as brisk walking) each week

  OR, 1 hours and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity (such as jogging, swimming laps, etc.)

  OR a combination of the two.


Thirty minutes of exercise of moderate intensity, such as brisk walking for 3 days a week, is sufficient for these health benefits. Another important aspect to consider, is that these 30 minutes don’t necessarily need to be continuous; three 10-minute walks are believed to be as equally useful as one 30-minute walk. It is important to listen to your body. If you are feeling pain or intense discomfort, allow yourself to take a break. It is not helping your mental health if you keep pushing yourself into physical discomfort and neglecting your needs.


It also may be helpful to set small daily goals, and aim for consistency rather than “perfection” in your workout. Exercise can improve mental health by keeping our goals attainable, we are going to feel more likely to accomplish them. If we are not able to reach a goal we set for ourselves, we may feel frustrated and want to dismiss that goal altogether. Especially if movement and exercise are not things that you naturally enjoy doing, it is always better to be gentle with yourself. Practicing lowering expectations, being patient with yourself, and being flexible whenever you start a new exercise program will be most effective. Whatever movement you may engage with may not feel good or beneficial right away. Once again, listen to your body to determine what feels helpful and what feels uncomfortable or painful.


Finally, if you are wanting to add physical exercise or movement into your mental health care routine, it is important to find physical activity that you genuinely enjoy doing. This will help you to create a sustainable pattern of fitness in your life. If your workout or exercise routine feels like a chore, it is likely you will eventually tire of it, be less than enthusiastic about repeating it, and likely not find as much benefit from it. When we engage with things that bring us some amount of peace, contentment, or joy, we are more likely to repeat that behavior. Exercise and physical activity is no exception. So, take some time to explore what movements feel best to you and your body, and see the mental health benefits of exercise.






Works Cited

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (n.d.-b). Tips | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. Retrieved September 2, 2020, from https://adaa.org/tips


Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 8(2), 106. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a

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