Does Exercise Help Mental Health?

Most people know that exercise is good for them. It improves sleep, helps you maintain a healthy weight, and increases energy levels. What you may not know is that exercise has also been shown to have significant impacts on those with mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety. Countless scientists, researchers, and universities have done studies on the effects that exercise has on those with depression and anxiety, and the results are both astounding and very encouraging. Some studies have even determined that exercise can be just as effective, if not more effective, as anti-depressant medications! So the short answer is yes—exercise does help mental health. Read on to learn about how it helps and how you can get on the road to better mental health with regular exercise.

The Science behind Exercise and Mental Health

You’ve likely heard about runner’s high or weight-lifting euphoria, but do you know that those are caused by the workout themselves? You don’t have to be in love with running or be obsessed with weight lifting to experience those mind-boosting benefits. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which makes your body release endorphins, which is essentially your body’s homemade antidepressant and releases serotonin, which lifts your mood.

Additionally, low-intensity exercise has been shown to stimulate and increase cell growth, which is incredibly important. Not only will cell growth help your brain to restructure itself into feeling positive emotions and break the habit of negative thought patterns, but it will improve your overall health and wellness. Scientists that studied individuals with depression found that the area of their brains that regulate their mood (the hippocampus) was actually physically smaller than those without depression. Increased nerve cell growth due to exercise will help the hippocampus grow and will improve nerve cell connections, reducing the symptoms of depression.

A study done by Duke University looked at several individuals who were diagnosed with depression. They were divided into three treatment groups: exercise, medication, and exercise & medication. After 16 weeks, all groups showed similar improvements in depression symptoms, all of which were considered significant.

The Positive Effects of Exercising on Mental Health

Not only is exercise biologically good for you when it comes to improving mental health, but it is a great way to improve your overall quality of life, including relieving your depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. People who exercise are generally more in tune with their overall wellness, and they tend to eat better, regulate sleep better, and live an overall healthier lifestyle. When your physical wellness improves, your mood improves. You will likely have a more positive outlook on life and a better appreciation for the life you were given.

It can be hard to push yourself to exercise when you’re experiencing a slew of negative emotions, but exercise can significantly improve even short-term struggles. If you’re feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, hopeless, insecure, or stressed, exercise can be a great way to cope and overcome those negative emotions and thoughts. Even physical pain from a disability, injury, or health issue can often be improved with appropriate exercise.

Exercise is an outlet—a place to go and something to do to keep your brain and body busy. It is a good distraction from the stress in your life and the mental health challenges you’ve been dealing with. Exercise brings about sharper memory, more clarity in thinking, improved focus, higher self-esteem, better sleep habits, more energy, and stronger mental and physical resilience.

Break the Cycle & Start Now

It can be hard to find the motivation to get started exercising when you’re dealing with an overwhelming mental health issue. In addition to challenging mental symptoms, depression can cause a variety of physical symptoms as well, such as problems sleeping, decreased energy, body aches, appetite irregularity, and a general lack of motivation. It can be hard to break the cycle of depression and struggling with mental and physical issues, but the sooner you can muster up the motivation to begin exercising, the sooner you’ll begin seeing the positive benefits of it. Every little bit helps, so even if you start with a five-minute walk around the block a few times a week, you’ll be making progress.

It’s hard to know exactly how little or how much exercise is necessary to see the improvements in mental health. However, most studies have had participants do low-intensity, low-impact exercises, like walking, biking, or light jogging. Just 30 minutes a day for 3 or 4 days a week will bring about great results. Be aware that it may take a few weeks to see the benefits of regular exercise, particularly when it comes to depression symptoms, but you will likely experience positive wellness effects within just the first few days.

The original research study done by Duke University did a follow-up study where they looked at the original participants for another six months after the initial investigation. They found that the participants who continued to exercise saw continued improvement in their depression, and only 8% of the exercise group relapsed, experiencing depression once again. In contrast, the medication-only group saw a relapse in 38% of participants and the medication plus exercise group had 31% relapse. The long-term effects of exercise for mental health are very encouraging. Taking an active role in improving your health can be quite powerful, and we hope you will experience this confidence boost as you begin exercising to improve your own mental health.

NCHS Can Help

If you’re ready to get started exercising or want to learn more about the benefits of exercise on your mental health, get in touch with NCHS today. We offer a variety of behavioral health services, including treatment of many mental health conditions. Contact us now or visit an NCHS location near you.