The Link Between Exercise and Mental Health
Yes, physical fitness builds a strong body that looks its best and performs to its max, but that’s not even close to all exercise can do for you. Fitness plays a role in every aspect of health, including mental health. Read on to learn what working out can do for your brain.
If you’re a fitness buff, you know how effective a good workout is at lifting your mood. But you probably don’t realize just how far the brain-boosting benefits go. There are many ways that fitness improves brain function, such as:
- Releasing endorphins, which reduces pain and increases one’s sense of well-being.
- Releasing serotonin, which decreases anxiety, lifts the mood, and promotes sound sleep.
- Releasing dopamine, which plays an essential role in preventing mood disorders and addictions.
- Increasing BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which creates new neurons and strengthens existing nerve cells.
- Increasing glutamate and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which helps regulate emotions and concentration.
Regular exercise also improves your brain’s resilience to stress. By regularly exposing your brain to manageable amounts of physical stress, exercise improves your body’s ability to regulate its stress response. As a result, you’re more capable of taking psychological stresses in stride.
Personal Implications and Improvements
What does all of this mean for you? Lower risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders, reduced symptoms of existing mental health issues, improved stress management, and more confidence in everyday life. And you don’t have to be a fitness buff to reap the benefits — Science Alert explains just one hour of exercise per week can improve your brain chemistry.
The type of exercise doesn’t matter much, with some exceptions. Moderate- and high-intensity exercise such as jogging, swimming laps, or doing a HIIT workout is more effective at relieving stress than low-intensity exercise like walking. Interestingly, yoga is reported to be the most effective form of exercise for reducing the symptoms of schizophrenia. For best results, aim for a mix of physical activity that includes vigorous-, moderate-, and light-intensity exercise.
How Much is Enough, and How Much is Too Much?
You don’t have to pump out an hour-long workout at maximum effort; instead, spread small amounts of moderate- and high-intensity exercise throughout the week for the greatest benefit.
If fitness isn’t currently a fixture in your life, don’t jump straight into high-intensity exercises. The Conversation notes doing so could lead to injury or cause you to become discouraged and quit prematurely. Instead, start with light- and moderate-intensity exercises that are challenging, but doable. Push yourself a little further each time and you’ll gradually build the endurance and strength you need to move onto more vigorous exercise.
Aim for a Wellness-Focused Lifestyle
While fitness is an incredible tool for building a strong mind, it’s no cure-all for mental health problems. If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, addiction, or another mental health issue, pair your fitness regimen with professional mental health treatment and other actions that promote good mental health, such as:
- Getting good sleep.
- Eating a healthy diet.
- Finding meaningful work.
- Spending time in positive environments and with positive people.
- Practicing mindfulness.
An active lifestyle doesn’t come easy to everyone. But sometimes, the things that keep us from working out — bad moods, high stress and low self-esteem — are actually a sign that we need to get moving. If mental health has been a challenge in your life, it’s time to see if physical fitness can help it get back on track.