It’s long been known that exercising and staying active is good for physical health and overall well-being. But does exercise also improve mental health? Research shows that not only can exercise be quite beneficial for mental health, but it is also often prescribed in place of or in addition to drug therapy for some mental health conditions. People who exercise regularly say they feel more energetic, have a sharper mind, sleep better and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives.
The Effects of Exercise on the Brain
In the brain, exercise works similarly to drugs used to treat mental health conditions by increasing levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. It also increases blood circulation and improves and normalizes neurotransmitter levels, which helps us feel mentally balanced. This explains “runners high,” a common phrase used to describe the deeply relaxing state of euphoria people often feel after a lengthy run.
The good news is you don’t have to run a marathon to feel the same effects. Exercise doesn’t have to be hours-long drudgery or repetitive gym routines. Health care practitioners say that just 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (any activity that increases your breathing and heart rate) three to five times a week is enough to feel a boost in mental health. Even a simple 20-minute walk can clear the mind and reduce stress.
Health care practitioners say that just 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (any activity that increases your breathing and heart rate) three to five times a week is enough to feel a boost in mental health.
Your exercise routine can be tailored to fit your personality, comfort level and ability. Exercising by yourself gives you some quiet time, allowing your mind to relax and take a break from everyday stress. On the other hand, exercising with a group can involve team sports, dancing with a partner or making new friends at an exercise class. You can make exercise fun and something you look forward to like a treat by incorporating activities you enjoy.
How Exercise Supports Mental Health
Exercise has been successful in treating a variety of mental health conditions. For individuals needing support for issues such as depression, PTSD, panic attacks or anxiety, exercise has been shown to help in the following ways:
- Alleviates many of the symptoms of depression, such as fatigue, tension, anger and reduced energy
- Releases pent-up tension and reduces feelings of fear and worry
- Decreases sensitivity to the body’s reaction to anxiety and can decrease the intensity and frequency of panic attacks
For people who already feel mentally healthy, exercise can enhance well-being in multiple ways:
- Decreases stress hormones like cortisol
- Takes your mind off problems
- Enhances your physical appearance
- Provides a way to socially connect
- Strengthens your immunity by reducing stress
Exercise Is a Good Thing at Any Age
The National Institute on Aging says no matter your health and physical abilities, you can gain a lot by exercising. Inactivity is more to blame than age when older people lose the ability to do things on their own. Develop an exercise habit you’ll want to stick with, one that offers social connection, involves a hobby or sport you love or makes you feel challenged. It can provide preventative health benefits that will last a lifetime.