How exercise benefits our mental health

In honour of Mental Health Week, we’re taking a look at the mental health benefits of exercise.

While not a cure for mental health issues, exercise can help reduce symptoms of conditions like depression and anxiety.

Not to mention that an active lifestyle can reduce stress and also assist with the recovery from mental health issues.

Research has shown that people who exercise regularly have better mental health and emotional wellbeing and lower rates of mental illness. For example, a 2011 Dutch study of more than 7000 adults found that doing exercise reduced the risk of developing a mood or anxiety disorder over the following three years.


Chemical reaction

Brain chemical reaction Shutterstock Strong Fit Well

Exercise releases several different chemicals in the body which have mood-boosting effects.

Among these are endorphins which reduce the pain associated with exercise, meaning you can work longer and harder. But beyond that, they also help to diminish stress levels and create the feeling of a post-exercise high.

Then there’s Serotonin which is considered to be a natural mood enhancer. Increased levels of this neurochemical correspond with a reduction in symptoms of depression.

Exercise can also boost norepinephrine levels which help moderate the brain’s response to stress.

Moderate intensity workouts of around 40 minutes done between three and five times per week are the most beneficial in terms of releasing these neurochemicals, according to a 1999 Duke University study.

Aerobic exercise performed regularly at a comfortable and consistent level, was also linked to increased chemical release.


Mood boost

Happy fit woman exercise Shutterstock Strong Fit Well

When you feel good physically, you’re more likely to feel better emotionally as well.

Not only does regular exercise boost energy levels giving you an additional spring in your step, but it can tone and tighten problem areas so that you feel more confident about your appearance. That’s great news for your self-esteem which can take a flogging when you’re feeling down about the way you look and feel.


Getting out there


Exercise not only gets people moving in a physical sense, but also in a geographic sense.

Getting out and about helps people feel connected to the world, reducing any sense of isolation.

The fresh air seems to work wonders too. A recent study from the University of Innsbruck found that people’s moods were significantly improved during and after the outdoor activity, with levels of fatigue reduced.

On top of that, the vitamin D soaked up from the sun during outdoor workouts can also reduce the chances of experiencing symptoms of depression.

Then there’s the social side of getting out of the house. Interacting with people in public spaces or gyms reduces any feelings of loneliness and can help create an all-important support network.


Solid slumber

Sleeping man Shutterstock Strong Fit Well

Workouts generally tend to lead to a better night’s sleep. That’s great news for our mental health because a lack of sleep has frequently been linked with elevated stress levels.

And if that stress becomes chronic, the body’s chemical balance can become disrupted. Levels of cortisol, the stress hormone,” can become elevated. Meanwhile, serotonin (see above) levels and those of other neurotransmitters such as dopamine can take a hit which can lead to depression.

Insomnia has the biggest link to depression. A 2007 study of 10,000 people showed those with insomnia were five times as likely to develop depression as those without. Insomnia is often one of the first symptoms of depression.

A 2005 Sleep in America poll showed that people who diagnosed with depression or anxiety were more likely to sleep less than six hours at night.


Do you find a link between exercise and maintaining balance?



Posted by

Journo turned fitness professional, passionate about helping people to live a healthier and happier life! A long way from London, I now call Sydney home.

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