October 03, 2018
Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
Published by Maksim Tourou in Technics
Everyone knows that regular exercise is good for the body. But exercise is also one of the most effective ways to improve your mental health. Regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety, ADHD, and more. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts overall mood. You don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits. Research indicated that modest amounts of exercise can make a difference. No matter your age or fitness level, you can learn to use exercise as a powerful tool to feel better.
What are the mental health benefits of exercise?
Exercise is not just about aerobic capacity and muscle size. Sure, exercise can improve your physical health and your physique. Trim your waistline, improve your sex life, and even add years to your life. But that’s not what motivates most people to stay active.
People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it gives them an enormous sense of well-being. They feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. Exercise is also a powerful medicine for many common mental health challenges.
“Movement is a medicine for creating change in a person’s physical, emotional, and mental states.”
— Carol Welch
Getting started exercising when you're anxious or depressed
Many of us find it hard enough to motivate ourselves to exercise at the best of times. When we feel depressed, anxious, stressed or have other mental or emotional problems, it can be doubly difficult. This is especially true of depression and anxiety, and it can leave you feeling trapped in a catch-22 situation. You know exercise will make you feel better, but depression has robbed you of the energy and motivation you need to exercise, or your social anxiety means you can’t bear the thought of being seen at an exercise class or running through the park. So, what can you do?
It's okay to start small. In fact, it's smart.
When you’re under the cloud of an emotional disorder and haven’t exercised for a long time, setting yourself extravagant goals like completing a marathon or working out for an hour every morning will only leave you more despondent if you fall short. Better to set yourself achievable goals and build up from there.
Schedule your workout at the time of day when your energy is highest.
That may be first thing in the morning before work or school, or at lunchtime before the mid-afternoon lull hits, or in longer sessions at the weekend. If depression or anxiety has you feeling tired and unmotivated all day long, try dancing to some music or simply going for a walk. Even a short, 15-minute walk can help clear your mind, improve your mood, and boost your energy level. As you move and start to feel a little better, you’ll experience a greater sense of control over your well-being. You may even feel energized enough to exercise more vigorously—by walking further, breaking into a run, or adding a bike ride, for example.
Easy ways to move more that don't involve the gym
Don’t have 30 minutes to dedicate to yoga or a bike ride? Don’t worry. Think about physical activity as a lifestyle rather that just a single task to check off. Look at your daily routine and consider ways to sneak in activity here, there, and everywhere. Need ideas? We’ve got them.
In and around your home. Clean the house, wash the car, tend to the yard and garden, mow the lawn with a push mower, sweep the sidewalk or patio with a broom.
At work and on the go. Bike or walk to an appointment rather than drive, banish all elevators and get to know every staircase possible, briskly walk to the bus stop then get off one stop early, park at the back of the lot and walk into the store or office, take a vigorous walk during your coffee break.
With the family. Jog around the soccer field during your kid’s practice, make a neighborhood bike ride part of weekend routine, play tag with your children in the year, go canoeing at a lake, walk the dog in a new place.
Just for fun. Pick fruit at an orchard, boogie to music, go to the beach or take a hike, gently stretch while watching television, organize an office bowling team, take a class in martial arts, dance, or yoga.
Make exercise a fun part of your everyday life
You don’t have to spend hours in a gym or force yourself into long, monotonous workouts to experience that many benefits of exercise. These tips can help you find activities you enjoy and start to feel better, look better, and get more of life.
Resources and references
Physical Activity and Mental Health—details how being active can help depression and other mental health issues. (Royal College of Psychiatrists)
The Exercise Effect—Discusses the mental health benefits of exercise and why it should be used more frequently in mental health treatment. (American Psychological Association)
Exercising to Relax—How physical activity and autoregulation exercises can help reduce stress. (Harvard Medical School)
Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms—How to relieve symptoms with exercise, including tips to help you get started and stay motivated. (Mayo Clinic)
For Depression, Prescribing Exercise Before Medication—Article about how aerobic activity has shown to be an effective treatment for many forms of depression. (The Atlantic)
Guide to Physical Activity—Provides many examples and ideas of physical activity that you might not have considered exercise.
Fitness Basics—A comprehensive guide to fitness including overcoming barriers, creative ways to exercise, types of exercise and measuring your heart rate. (Mayo Clinic)
Tips to Help You Get Active—A step-by-step guide to getting active, breaking down how to overcome barriers and practical tips on getting started. (National Institutes of Health)
Help Guide—Trusted guide to mental & emotional health article.