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While it’s a well-known fact, there’s a clear connection between exercise and mental health, and the benefits are often underestimated by patients and their loved ones alike. Physical movement does more for you than just keep your body fit. It can help improve cognition and mood, regulate emotions, reduce stress, fight against anxious and depressive thoughts, and can play a significant therapeutic role in a patient’s treatment plan – to the point that, for many conditions, regular exercise can be considered a first-line treatment. But why is exercise such a powerful tool for mental health, and where exactly does the connection lie? Let’s explore what happens in the body and the brain when we get moving, and why exercise helps us feel so much better in general.

Exploring the Benefits of Exercise and Mental Health

There are multiple accepted theories for the benefits of exercise for mental health. We all know that physical exercise helps keep the body fit, improving heart health, reducing the likelihood of back pain, and even reducing the effects of certain age-related physical conditions such as disc degenerative disease and osteoporosis. Strengthening the muscles of the body correlates with longevity and resistance to certain diseases, and regular exercise improves the immune system. But the effects of exercise on the brain and a person’s mental state may have several reasons, including:

  • Exercise raises your core temperature, which can have a positive effect on depressive symptoms.
  • Exercise releases dopamine, which creates a feeling of euphoria and modulates mood.
  • Exercise increases the availability of multiple important mood-regulating chemicals in the brain.
  • Regular exercise serves as a distraction from distressing and intrusive depressive thoughts, as well as other negative thinking.
  • Consistent and regular exercise creates a positive feedback loop giving a person more control over their life and self-esteem.

Each one of these theories has some scientific merit, to the point that all of them could prove to be relevant to some degree for anyone who finds success with exercise as a therapeutic tool against depression and other mental health issues. As with most things, the truth may be somewhere in the middle, where the physiological and emotional benefits of exercise can be traced to a combination of all of the above.

Because exercise is usually structured in a way that emphasizes a linear progression and progressive overload – whether it’s in the form of new skills and techniques in certain sports, increasing challenges, or physical resistance – we develop a more positive sense of self in response to exercise. Meanwhile, exercise unleashes a wave of brain chemicals each time, leading to improved sleep, weight reduction, increased energy, better endurance, reduced mental fatigue, and mood regulation. All these factors in turn help reduce depressive and anxious thoughts. Discover the close connection between exercise and mental health.

Exercise for Long-Term Stress Relief

Aside from having a marked effect on multiple different mental health issues, from depression and anxiety to ADHD, PTSD, schizophrenia, and more, it’s important to remember that exercise is also a powerful preventative tool due to its ability to modulate and reduce stress. That doesn’t mean people who work out often can’t get depressed or anxious – however, it can reduce their likelihood of struggling with tougher outcomes and stronger symptoms.

Many of the factors surrounding mental health issues like depression and anxiety are uncontrollable, like genetics, traumatic experiences, and socioeconomic circumstances. Some of these can impact your ability to exercise regularly, due to physical disability, lack of time, or lack of resources. For some, regular exercise is a luxury. However, we don’t need to take on an athlete’s schedule to benefit from the mental health effects of exercise.

How Much Exercise Is Enough?

A meta-analysis of multiple studies found that anywhere between two to six hours of exercise per week is enough to reap the maximum benefits for mental health. This means you need only dedicate anywhere from a few minutes to an hour a day to start seeing long-term benefits from your workouts.

Forget “No Pain No Gain”

You really don’t need to overdo it. Unless you’re the type that specifically derives enjoyment and passion from competitive training, sports training, and pursuing specific goals, you’re much better off training conservatively and pursuing exercises that are fun, rather than prioritizing optimal growth, or athletic performance. What’s even more important than overall intensity is commitment and consistency. The benefits of exercise aren’t necessarily immediate, in the sense that you might not see a significant difference in mental health symptoms from one day to the next after your first few sessions of physical activity.

It’s Not the End All Be All

Despite the close connection between exercise and mental health, exercise is not a panacea. The downside to reaping the benefits of continuous and consistent exercise is that it’s famously difficult to be consistent or continuous with any kind of activity while struggling with a mental health issue. People who are depressed or struggle with anxiety will also usually have a harder time forming positive habits or convincing themselves to work out when they don’t want to. It’s difficult to create and stick to an exercise regimen while struggling with mood fluctuations, medication side effects, and bouts of mental and physical fatigue.

To that end, it’s important to figure out contingencies. Create an exercise group with your friends, and let yourself be encouraged by positive peer pressure. Pick exercises that are actually fun, or at least feel enjoyable to you. Vary up your exercise program so that you don’t end up doing the same things for months on end (if that burns you out). Create a modular program that can be adapted for “easy days” when it’s hard enough to get out of bed, let alone hit the gym.

Exercise is an amazing therapeutic tool, but it isn’t enough to tell a person to go for a jog in order to cure their depression. There are good ways and bad ways to incorporate regular exercise into your daily life when you’re struggling with a mental health issue. However, having an understanding and supportive family and experienced fitness and mental health professional on your side can be a tremendous boon.