We are all aware of the immeasurable benefits of physical activity for the well-being of our bodies such as, maintaining healthy body weight, preventing diseases such as cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and reducing the risk of high blood pressure. But, it is rare to hear someone talk about the mental health benefits of exercise.
In reality, exercise is highly beneficial for maintaining a good mood and improving psychological health. It is scientifically proven to be a mood booster and a great defense against mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and more.
Science Behind Mental Health and Physical Activity
You will often hear people who exercise regularly tell you that they enjoy it because it makes them ‘feel good.’ To a person who does not exercise, that may sound odd, because frankly, all those workout videos and pictures on Instagram and Youtube seem kind of intense. Who wants to do that when you have the option to laze around in your bed all day, right? Wrong.
Let’s get into some science:
Our nervous system releases chemicals in the body responsible for feelings of happiness, called endorphins. These are released as a response to stress or pain but also during pleasurable activities like eating or sex. They function as natural pain relievers, released by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland.
For decades, scientists have believed that mild or intense exercise can often trigger this response from the central nervous system. The term ‘runner’s high’ is a famous expression that you may have heard about. It refers to the short period of the euphoric feeling that some people report experiencing right after intense or lengthy workout sessions.
However, more recent research has revealed that it is not the endorphins that bring about that pleasurable feeling, but a release of endocannabinoids that increases after physical activity. The endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating and maintaining critical cognitive functions including emotional processing, pain control, eating, anxiety, learning and memory, reproduction, metabolism, growth, and development.
So yes, while exercise may not seem as exciting to some, it can help you calm down and regulate your mood through a short-term euphoric boost. But that is not the only thing exercising is good for. Regular physical activity has numerous mental health benefits that can help alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and ADHD in the long run.
Long-term Psychological Benefits of Exercise
Having a regular workout routine has a multitude of benefits for both, the body and the mind. It helps boost brain health, improve overall mood, and is a natural remedy for several mental health disorders. Long-term psychological benefits of exercise include:
The body and the mind are deeply connected. When the mind is stress stricken, its effects can be felt in the body as well. You may feel lethargic, numb, or maybe even have gastrointestinal issues. Thus, when the mind is free from stress, your body is too.
One survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that 30% of adult respondents the survey reported feeling less stressed after exercise. Among teens, about 37% notified that they exercise specifically to manage stress and 32% of them admitted that it helped alleviate symptoms of stress.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), ‘Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood.’
They further state:
These improvements in mood are proposed to be caused by an exercise-induced increases in blood circulation to the brain and by an influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and, thus, on the physiologic reactivity to stress.This physiologic influence is probably mediated by the communication of the HPA axis with several regions of the brain, including the limbic system, which controls motivation and mood; the amygdala, which generates fear in response to stress; and the hippocampus, which plays an important part in memory formation as well as in mood and motivation.National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)
Helps With Depression and Anxiety
Both depression and anxiety can be debilitating to deal with and can cause significant problems in daily life, sometimes making it impossible to carry out routine activities. Luckily, anti-depressants are not the only solution to combat them. Research has shown that exercise can be equally as effective in minimizing symptoms of depression and anxiety and maintaining overall good health.
A study was conducted in which 30 moderately depressed candidates were assigned to an exercise intervention group, a wait-list control group, and a social support group. Results showed a significant reduction in depressive symptoms among the candidates allocated to the exercise intervention group as compared to the other two. Research also suggests that routine physical activity can improve depression and anxiety symptoms in the long run.
Improves Memory and Focus
Suffering from mental health disorders can be tiresome. Often, people with clinical depression, anxiety, or stress find themselves unable to complete regular tasks. Furthermore, almost all psychological disorders are connected with memory loss and lack of concentration, especially major depressive disorder.
A study was conducted on a group of people in which the participants were given a set of 100 words to memorize a) while cycling b) after cycling, and c) without cycling. Results revealed that after 24 hours, the number of words recalled during cycling was greater than in the other two situations.
Poor mental health is connected to poor self-esteem and poor self-confidence. Exercising can give your self-esteem a much-needed boost, in turn, strengthening your self-confidence as well. As you start to feel better about your body and your appearance, your confidence in yourself increases. In addition, since exercise helps combat mental health issues and maintain a good mood, it minimizes negative thoughts and self-destructive patterns of behavior thereby boosting self-esteem.
Furthermore, the sense of accomplishment that comes with achieving your workout milestones each day not only functions as an encouragement to do even better but also contributes to improving self-esteem.
You can never go wrong with exercise. Even a little bit of exercise incorporated into your daily routine can reap remarkable long-term results for your mental health. It does not have to be rigorous, intense exercise as well. It can be a 30-minute walk or a jog according to your capability. Of course, if you’re new to exercising, taking it slow and slowly increasing time and intensity is a better way to go about it. The mental health benefits of exercise cannot be denied since they are backed up by multiple studies and extensive research so if you are suffering from any kind of mental health issue, start working out as soon as possible and witness the results for yourself!